Alaska leads the nation in domestic violence. More than half of Alaska’s women have experienced either domestic or sexual violence. Every Alaskan regardless of age, race, culture, or status deserves to live free from harm and fear of domestic violence. Every year, Southcentral Foundation highlights the work of the Family Wellness Warriors Initiative, a program established by President/CEO Katherine Gottlieb in 1999.

Each spring, Southcentral Foundation highlights the work of the Family Wellness Warriors Initiative, a program established by President/CEO Katherine Gottlieb in 1999. One of FWWI’s aims is to end to child abuse and child sexual assault in this generation.

It was 2013 in Noorvik and tears streamed down her face. Feeling alone and facing countless struggles, she thought long and hard about what she could do next, that’s when her phone rang. “It was my longtime friend, calling to see how I was.

Today, Southcentral Foundation is providing a network of community and support around inmates in Alaska and those re-entering society. Through Family Wellness Warriors Initiative’s partnership with Transformational Living Community and Native Men’s Wellness Program, many incarcerated people and those in transition are finding hope and making lasting change.

For far too long, Alaska has ranked the highest in the nation in rates of child abuse and sexual assault. This April, thanks to Southcentral Foundation’s Family Wellness Warriors Initiative, hundreds of Alaskans took part in awareness, education, and action in an effort to end the violence.

Alaska is known for many things, including its beautiful landscapes, breathtaking glaciers, and seemingly endless summer days; these things make us proud to be Alaskan.

In the past, the conversation about sexual assault and harassment has been timid, if not silent. But the world has shifted to create a more welcoming environment to express personal feelings and provide more emphasis on the rights of men and women to control their own bodies. This cultural development has caused the massive scope of individuals who have experienced any unwanted sexual advance, contact, or assault to be revealed.

According to the Rape, Abuse & Incest National Network (RAINN), sexual assault is any sexual contact or behavior that occurs without explicit consent of the receiver. This includes but is not limited to sexual touching or fondling, rape, and attempted rape. However, RAINN reminds readers that the term force does not singularly describe physical pressure, but can also be emotional and psychological manipulation.

The #MeToo movement has been a prominent vehicle for people of all walks of life to share their stories by posting on social media and include the hashtag. As the trend began to go viral, the bittersweet realization that the sexual abuse and harassment issue was far bigger than anyone had imagined came to life. But the trend began to spark the desire to find a solution. While the fight to change the social narrative is far from over, creating awareness and facilitating the conversation is a huge step in the right direction.

Though the world has come leaps and bounds from where it was, there are still those suffering in silence who are not comfortable putting their private struggles on such a public, accessible platform. As a health and wellness provider to Alaska Native and American Indian people in a state that has three times more sexual crime than the national average, Southcentral Foundation has a responsibility to provide resources to Alaskans who have experienced sexual assault, whatever their case may be.

SCF has a program based solely on helping individuals emotionally heal from traumatic events. The Family Wellness Warriors Initiative works to end violence, abuse and neglect in this generation by creating a safe environment for people to relay what they have experienced and learn how to deal with anger, loss, and grief while building relationships with others. FWWI also works with those who have harmed to teach them healthy expressions of anger and the importance of empathy. To do this, they practice good coping skills and work to recognize healthy responses to negative emotions. This goes hand-in-hand with ending sexual assault and harassment as it teaches healthy interpersonal habits.

On April 16 – 20, FWWI will be hosting Beauty for Ashes, a conference designed to educate attendees on the personal battles and lasting effects of domestic abuse on someone’s day to day life. It is a week-long journey of spiritual healing for those who have experienced domestic abuse, and a source of intense insight for those who have not. They work in large and small groups to understand the root causes of domestic abuse and how to stop the cycle.

Polly Andrews and Alice Mathlaw adorn traditional Yup’ik regalia and dance fans.

“I felt a sense of peace and I wanted to share it with others,” said a 2017 Beauty for Ashes attendee. “I learned how to share my feelings productively.”

The theme for the April 2018 Sexual Assault Awareness Month is Embrace Your Voice. This is an important statement as it recognizes that people on both sides of abuse have had their voices silenced. The journey to wellness for those who have experienced assault or abuse starts with understanding the impact of their stories. If they share their experiences, it will allow for others to relate and work through their emotional hardships.

Any kind of sexual assault or abuse is fueled by a misunderstanding of how to treat others. But there is a way to reverse the effects of trauma and it begins with support and love from those who understand. If the conversation remains ongoing and the standard for healthy relationships is clear, Alaska will be that much closer to reaching the end of abuse in not only this generation, but for generations to come.

To learn more about Family Wellness Warriors Initiative (FWWI) and their programs, call (907) 729-5440.

by Addison Anderson, SCF Public Relations

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.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month, which recognizes those who live with mental health conditions—to show support and educate the general public about such conditions.