By Polly Andrews
Temperatures hovered at 30 below and the snow blowing on the Bering Sea ice looked much like a scene from an Arctic movie with a storyline of adventure, peril, and survival. Southcentral Foundation Family Wellness Warriors Initiative employees had just landed in the dawn-colored sunlight of frozen Kotzebue, an Inupiaq community of 3,300 in the Northwest region of Alaska.
FWWI’s goal is to end domestic violence, child sexual abuse and child neglect in Alaska, and they travel to Alaska communities, at their invitation, to support the development of healthy individuals, families, and communities. FWWI conducts trainings and surveys to identify people and providers across the community who want to, or continue to be, involved in this work. Most recently, community members from St. Paul and Kotzebue invited FWWI to do what they do best: build relationships.
In the following days, FWWI employees organized a community awareness workshop, where members of the community came to learn about FWWI trainings, while hearing stories of personal impact from those who had experienced the powerful training firsthand. Arrigah House and Beauty for Ashes (BFA) are two statewide trainings, designed to train interested people throughout Alaska, how to respond to individuals who have been impacted by abuse. Alaska Native values, the power of story, and building skills towards healthy relationships are at the core of FWWI trainings, and it’s a philosophy that continues to impact individuals, families, and communities as more and more people share their stories, breaking the silence of abuse.
After visiting Kotzebe, FWWI employees flew to St. Paul Island, a tiny Unangax community 300 miles off the coast of Alaska, in the Bering Sea. It’s the only place in Alaska where it takes longer to fly than it does to Seattle: over three hours of mountains, ice, and a long stretch of open sea before finally reaching the island. A community well known for the annual seal harvest, it is a land decorated with grassy hills and sand dunes, rocky cliffs, and the blue ocean abundant with sea life.
Upon reaching St. Paul Island, FWWI employees held a community awareness workshop, which brought people to learn about FWWI. A row of Elders lined the front of the audience, as other community members filled the chairs behind them: city employees, health providers, the VPSO, the village Orthodox priest, and the tribal council president. Following the FWWI presentation, the workshop closed with five people who have participated in previous FWWI trainings—most of whom were local—sharing personal stories about how BFA impacted them. Some spoke about how BFA helped open the door to recovery after years of struggling with addiction. Others shared how they experienced restored relationships and newfound hope in their lives. Through each story, the people of St. Paul listened intently, evident that the stories shared may have stirred their own.
The next morning, FWWI employees trekked down to the school, to engage with students while leading a cultural learning circle. There, FWWI employees and students shared traditional stories, cultural experiences, and traditional song and dance with a total of 40 youth, K–12. “What stood out to me,” shares Colleen Urrea, FWWI staff member, “was watching the teachers and children speak in their Native tongue, learning language and songs together. The Elders go to the school to teach the children, and the children teach them—it goes both ways”. Having spent her own early childhood years in St. Paul, she adds, “we weren’t allowed to speak in our Native tongue, and it’s good to see that now, the Elders and children have come together to teach and learn from one another…we’ve come a long way since my childhood.”
Following cultural engagement with youth at the school, FWWI employees trekked further to have lunch with Elders at the SCF Health Clinic. There, staff mingled with the Elders over a meal of salted and cooked seal, halibut spread, and warm fry bread. Over stories, laughter, and cultural exchange, a warm sense of community permeated through each person in the room. At the end of the trip, FWWI staff had connected with a total of 80 people in St. Paul Island—nearly 20% of the village’s population!
As winter wraps up, it has been a season of travel, community support, connectedness, and newly established relationships among FWWI employees and the rural communities they’ve recently visited. Thank you to the individuals and communities for participating in FWWI trainings and for inviting FWWI to come to your area. Thank you to our funding partners who make it possible to follow up with participants, and conduct community workshops and cultural learning circles. FWWI would like to thank the State of Alaska, Department of Health and Human Services for funding FWWI’s work in rural communities. Thanks to all of you, FWWI is indeed building relationships.