From Struggling Student to Straight As An Afterschool Success Story
Dale Austermuhl’s daughter was struggling academically when she started the after school program at her Fairbanks elementary in the second grade. Dale did his best to help, but there’s only so much a single dad working full time on a swing shift can do.
“Taking care of her all by myself while working – that’s difficult even for two parents. It’s challenging to handle this alone. You need a community,” Dale says.
Fast-forward four years, and Dale’s daughter is still enrolled in the program – and bringing home straight As. Perhaps more importantly, though, is the positive changes and growth he has seen in his daughter.
“It’s helping my child become more confident with herself,” he says. “With the support of the program, she’s growing into a responsible, sincere, beautiful person. That’s what I’ve seen as a parent.”
And, of course, you can’t put a price tag on the peace of mind the program offers to parents. “Knowing she is safe and that people are there making sure homework is done and helping her learn new things – I’m not sure what we would do without it,” Dale says.
The program Dale’s daughter is enrolled in is a 21st Century Community Learning Center. These grant-funded after school programs strive to improve student academics by providing a safe environment for students to explore interests, develop confidence, and celebrate success, while promoting positive connections between schools, families and the community.
“The program is not just about homework – it’s also activities like knitting, cooking and gardening,” Dale explains. “After school programs offer a safe environment where the kids are learning and becoming confident with themselves. The people involved in the afterschool program are helping make sure these kids become successful adults. Positive influences create a better person.”
Dale praises the program teachers and coordinators, as well as elected officials and organizations like Alaska Children’s Trust that support program funding.
“These programs need to be funded,” he says. “These children are our future. They will be taking care of us in the future. I’m very passionate about this.”
“This afterschool program has had a phenomenal impact on our family. It’s indescribable.”
Our Voices Will Be Heard Learning Tools for Real Healing
By Vera Starbard
Alaska Children’s Trust was one of the very first financial supporters for Our Voices Will Be Heard. That was no small thing. Because the play was of such a sensitive subject, many organizations and individuals were reluctant to support the play. But as they saw organizations like Alaska Children’s Trust sign on with their support, they were emboldened to support with donations, large and small. The snowball effect of those first organizations’ support was important to the ultimate bottom line of the production.
But what impact does funding really have? For us, it meant more reach. More people reached, more families reached – more lives impacted. It meant we could tell more people about the play through more market reach, reach them with more resources once they were at the play, and then after the play hold workshops to teach them how they could begin to tell their own story.
One such workshop took place near the end of the Juneau run of the three-community production. A handful of people who had seen my play, Our Voices Will Be Heard, heard about our “Healing Through Storytelling” workshop through advertisement at the play, and through local media. They were moved by the play’s message of telling your story, and wanted to learn how to tell theirs. At the workshop, I used art supplies purchased with grant funds to lead them through how I had used several different art mediums over the years to tell my own story of healing from childhood sexual abuse.
After the workshop, I was approached by one of the participants. She was a leader at a local residential treatment program. She found value in the workshop, and wondered if I wouldn’t come and lead a workshop for her residents.
Once I did, with a few members of the cast, it was one of the more enlightening workshops we held over the months. The women in this treatment center had all made the decision to seek recovery from substance abuse of some kind. And, without exception, they had each experienced some form of sexual abuse in their childhood. Once I had shown them what I had done with my own story, they opened up. I taught them about metaphor, and they used the teaching to write metaphors about their own story. It was magical.
We heard stories about white ravens who sought love, but were betrayed by evil foxes. We heard stories about little otters who were terribly hurt by sneaky weasels. And we heard about great eagles who got lost in the wind, but found their way back. The stories were beautiful and honest. That night, the leader told me it was the first time one of the women had made any reference at all to her abuse. And it came through a story.
A few months later, I got a message from that same leader, and she said that some of the women were still writing. They had received from that workshop a beginning. The beginning to storytelling, and a beginning to a new kind of healing. While the “snowball effect” continued, with that workshop leading to another and another, eventually culminating in leading workshops at a behavioral health conference with over 90 people attending a single workshop. But that small room with a few women will remain special. It lead not only to hearing beautiful stories, but was a tool for real childhood sexual abuse healing for women who were seeking it.
Safe Families for Children Alaska A Safe Place for Families to Seek Help
Earlier this year, Safe Families for Children Alaska received a call from a single mother with two young girls. Mom explained that she needed to have an emergency surgery that would render her incapable of normal movement for a few weeks. Her girls, who are used to being picked up and crawling all over their mom, would be unable to receive the attention and care they needed during her recovery.
Isolated and unsupported, mom had no one safe in her life to entrust her girls to. She also knew that if she were unable to find a safe place for her girls before surgery, she would have to place them in foster care. Fortunately, before that happened, a local church referred mom to Safe Families for Children Alaska, a new program offered through the nonprofit Beacon Hill.
Arrangements were made for the girls to stay with a certified volunteer host family whose children were close to the same age and attend the same school as the girls do. During her recovery, mom was able to video chat and talk on the phone with her children frequently.
The host family worked tirelessly to make the girls feel comfortable and at home, emphasizing the fact that these “extended sleepovers” were giving their mom time to recover and as soon as she was all healed and ready to go, they would be on their way back home.
During the placement, the host family connected mom with a support system though their mutual school connections and a local church. By the time the placement ended with Safe Families for Children, mom felt connected and cared for, and understood that she now has a network of people to call if anything like this were to happen again.
Thanks to Alaska Children’s Trust’s support of Beacon Hill and Safe Families for Children Alaska in 2016, these two young children and 19 others have avoided the trauma of unnecessarily entering the foster care system. Beacon Hill’s board and staff members are unbelievably grateful for the lifelong impact Alaska Children’s Trust has had on Alaska’s vulnerable families in 2016.
Making Cultural Connections Old Harbor Alliance Carving Workshop
Growing up in a rural village, Melissa Berns didn’t have a close connection with her culture. “Back then, there was a kind of shame associated with our culture. We knew we were Alutiiq but we didn’t know what that meant,” she says.
Today, through opportunities such as the Aurcaq carving workshop held in Old Harbor in April, youth are experiencing – and enjoying – their culture, while participating in healthy, positive activities. Among these youth is Melissa’s son.
“He’s always watched me skin sewing and beading, and he would ask for my knife and make spears out of sticks,” Melissa says. “To have an instructor teach him was very beneficial. It was eye-opening for him. He’s been doing more carving since the workshop – all the kids have.”
The week-long Aurcaq carving workshop, which was hosted by Old Harbor’s community and regional entities, kicked off a series of community events taking place throughout Great Lent. Aurcaq, a subsistence-focused marine mammal hunting game, is historically played only during the six weeks of Orthodox Lent. In years past, the Orthodox faith was strictly followed and the faithful were forbidden to hunt, gamble, eat red meat, or drink alcoholic beverages during Lent. The game of Aurcaq was believed to provide a social outlet for hunting and gambling at a time it was not allowed.
Alutiiq master carver and teacher Andrew Abyo came to the village to share traditional techniques used to carve Aurcaq game sets. Each participant completed a full set that they could take home to continue this tradition with their family and friends.
“The participants got to take a finished piece home and continue playing,” Melissa says. “They didn’t have to stop just because the workshop was over.”
In addition to exposing youth to the traditional game, the event planning team also wanted to encourage positive interactions between youth and adults. Traditional foods were a significant part of the week, which included nightly family-style dinners featuring sikyuk, salmon, alaciq, seal, sea lion, goose, clams, boiled cod, goat, deer and all of the fixings. At the dinners, elders, parents and children shared stories and visited about their daily activities, much like their ancestors did in years past.
“The workshop was a good mix of kids and adults working together. It helped bridge that gap,” Melissa says, adding that a total of 53 participants from 32 households participated throughout the week.
As the workshop finale, a community potlatch and Aurcaq tournament was held at the school. Youth and adults alike took great pride in their finely carved whales and laughter was heard throughout the evening. Instead of going home with material possessions won through gambling, there was a gain in cultural pride and the knowledge of an almost lost art, which can now be shared with generations to come. As the tournament concluded, smiles were seen on the faces of young and old, who repeatedly asked, “When are we going to do this again?”
“Activities like these give kids a sense of pride and a positive way to connect with their families and community,” Melissa says. “We can also pass on messages about respect, pride, and caring for yourself and your neighbor. Through these types of programs, we can perpetuate our art and build stronger leaders for the community.”
The Aurcaq carving workshop and tournament was supported by the Old Harbor Alliance’s grant through Alaska Children’s Trust, Alutiiq Tribe of Old Harbor’s Tribal Youth and Office on Violence Against Women Programs, Kodiak Area Native Association Family Violence Prevention Program, Koniag Inc., Old Harbor School and Old Harbor Native Corporation. The Aurcaq carving workshop is one of many workshops and events held throughout the year to perpetuate Alutiiq culture through the arts.
Melissa Berns is active in the community of Old Harbor and volunteers with youth programs as Nuniaq Alutiiq Dance Instructor, Nuniaq Traditional Camp Planner, Alutiiq Week Organizer and Old Harbor School Programs. Melissa perpetuates the continuation of Alutiiq Cultural Arts by teaching Subsistence Harvesting and Processing, Alutiiq Basket Weaving, Skin Sewing and Beading through youth programs year around.
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