Responding to Natural Disaster at St. Lawrence Island

In our latest AmeriCorps blog, former JV AmeriCorps member Steven Fisher (Anchorage, AK ’16-17), who served at the American Red Cross of Alaska, shares his experience serving clients affected by the natural disaster that struck St. Lawrence Island.

On January 4, Alaska Dispatch News released notice of a Bering Sea storm that struck the villages of Gambell and Savoonga on St. Lawrence Island. Ocean surges, 75 mph hurricane winds, and blizzards damaged buildings and downed the phone lines in Savoonga.

Steven assessing damage with local Savoonga resident

A few days later, the Fairbanks Disaster Program Manager and I departed from Anchorage to reach Savoonga to assess the extent of damage, overall impact, weather conditions, and demographics of Savoonga as a disaster-affected community. Two staff members from Emergency Management from the State of Alaska arrived a day earlier, and we worked together in a coordinated effort.

Mayor Myron Kingeekuk immediately met us upon landing in Savoonga. We dropped off our bags at the old VPSO (Village Public Safety Officer) office and, without pause, began to gather information. We met with the school that sheltered residents during the storm. We learned that the wind had tossed and upturned four wheelers as people rode to the school for shelter. With low stocks of food at the store, shelter residents depended on staff food for families resting in the gym.

The next day and a half involved us slipping over the ice visiting each home in Savoonga. To accurately and consistently record the damage on each dwelling, we spoke with someone from each home and wrote their information on a chart and map, scribbling “heat lost in home” or “75% roofing off house.” For one home, a 16-foot wall had been torn off. With most dwellings having at least exterior damage, we assessed 22 homes had endured significant structural damage and one home had been completely destroyed with no repairs feasible.

We observed the damage of each home, but more importantly, listened to the stories of families who weathered the storm, filled with awe at their resilience and their focus on the safety of others. Nobody was hurt in the storm. More people expressed concerns for the homes of their parents and their grandparents than their own. One father offered to snowmobile me back to homes where people had gone hunting for the day. A table of elders deliberated over how this would burden the lack of subsistence food from melted ice. Rather than encountering stories of distress or exasperation, I encountered a community with the stimulus to rebuild and face the ambiguous reality of what’s next.

After sharing our findings with our Red Cross of Alaska colleagues and division leaders, we opened relief operations for those whose homes were most impacted by the storm; in total, we provided assistance to 127 individuals on our last night in Savoonga. This served as immediate assistance before Emergency Management could present their assessment to the Disaster Policy Cabinet, where the Governor could declare a state disaster. This occurred on February 1st.

That night, news hit that a few boats had hunted a whale. Kids would ask if we’d heard about the whale as they rushed to the coast. Our counterparts in Emergency Management and I huddled together until 5:00 AM with everyone from Savoonga telling stories as we watched trucks haul a 200-ft bowhead whale onto the beach. Where the storm brought loss, the whale brought hope, regaining of control, nourishment, and well-being.

Steven and FJV Sam Johnson (Anchorage, AK ’15-16)

For the next month after I left Savoonga, a team of volunteer caseworkers and me followed up with families to see how they were doing and where we could provide further assistance. The Fairbanks Disaster Program Manager kept in touch with the school to offer shelter training to both school staff and Savoonga residents in the coming months.

Since my time in Savoonga, new disasters emerged and different communities welcomed me throughout Alaska. A few months after the disaster, Alaska Dispatch published an article focused on Savoonga. This time it was not about a storm, but rather a community celebration: the anniversary of Savoonga’s first landed whale 45 years ago. I smiled seeing the photos of familiar faces singing, praying, and eating muktuk from bowhead whale. Missing everybody I had met, I gave thanks for everybody’s safety.

Power of Place: Community & Education in a Remote Setting

JV AmeriCorps member Hopey Fink (Hays, MT ’15-16) serves as Academic Support Specialist at St. Paul’s Grade School. Below, Fink shares her experience providing educational assistance to students in the remote setting of Hays, Montana.

There’s a lot of “far” between here and other places. This unintentionally profound observation of a first grader has been ringing in my ears since September, when she pointed to a plane flying across the big sky over the playground at recess and mused about the distance to its destination. As a JV AmeriCorps member serving as the Academic Support Specialist at Mission Grade School on the Ft. Belknap Indian Reservation in Hays, Montana, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the unique beauty and the particular challenges of living in a remote place – the joys, the struggles, and the stories that fill the spaces of far between here and other places.

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A horse outside a classroom at Mission Grade School

Nestled in the grasslands at the base of the Little Rockies an hour and a half from the nearest large town, Hays is a village of about seven hundred people, mostly enrolled members of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes. It’s a place where horses frequently wander along the main road, where elk and deer meat are normal neighborly gifts, and where the whole town watches high school football games from pickup trucks pulled up to the field. Like many rural communities across America, it’s a place where the bonds of family run strong but also where cycles of poverty and addiction test these bonds. In January, the Ft. Belknap tribal council voted unanimously to declare an official state of emergency regarding the abuse of meth, a drug that directly or indirectly affects the lives of many of the children at Mission Grade School.

In my tutoring placement, I work one-on-one and in small groups with students from kindergarten through sixth grade. Every day, I see the brightness and potential that these children and youth offer to the community. At the same time, I have also seen how the injustices in rural communities like Hays are intergenerational, and the paths to justice must also be intergenerational.

One place I have witnessed the power of generations working together has been at our school’s weekly Honor Night Book Club, which aims to support family involvement in student literacy. Honor Night is an evening of games and fun in the school gym held every Thursday for students who have attended school, done their homework, and maintained good behavior all week. Fink, HopeyWhen relatives come to pick up their children, they are invited to choose a book and read aloud for five minutes. If they spend this time, each child can take a book home. Seeing kids discover the enjoyment that even five minutes of reading with their grandmother can bring is a reminder of the importance of involving families in education, especially in a community where many, if not most, households are multi-generational.

I am learning more and more that education extends beyond the pages of our textbook readers. If it is to be an effective tool against the systemic problems that are particular to this reservation community, education needs to encompass the values and wisdom and stories that Native families have passed from generation to generation in this place. A rootedness in this land and a respect for culture and tradition are things that I, as an outsider, cannot teach in the same way that I can teach times table tricks or phonics practice.

My JV AmeriCorps community mates and I have stepped into a nearly fifty-year legacy of Jesuit Volunteer service in Hays. Each day I am humbled by the sense that this place– these prairies and pines and these stories of wounds and hope that are woven into the fabric of this community- has existed long before us. I am grateful for the ways that I have felt welcomed into sharing some of the uniqueness of this place, whether that be on hikes in the canyon or in the circle of the sweat lodge.

Hopey (second from the left) with her JV AmeriCorps community mates

The distance between here and other places cannot only be measured in miles. Hays is a lot of “far” from the nearest Wal-Mart, sure. But the struggles of rural poverty and addiction, along with the struggles of many Indigenous people to preserve their ways, are also far from the minds of most people in America. In coming together across ages and in honoring the traditions of family and culture, the “lot of far” between here and other places can seem less daunting. Recognizing the power of place, in all of its vastness and remoteness, might allow generations to work together to break harmful cycles that are specific to this community. I am thankful for the opportunity to learn from this place as a JV AmeriCorps member and to work with people in Hays to effect change- starting with times tables tricks and phonics practice.

Teaching, Serving, & Building Relationships

During the month of August, the Corporation for National and Community Service is celebrating the service of teachers and educators. In honor of this month’s theme,  JV AmeriCorps member Elle Ross (St. Xavier, MT ’13-15) shares her experience serving as Academic Support for the Pretty Eagle Catholic Academy in St. Xavier, MT. Below, Ross explains how she learned building relationships is the basis of  both teaching and service. 

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JV AmeriCorps members located in St. Xavier

I have always greatly valued my education, and serving in a school for the past two years has helped me come to appreciate the people who really made it happen – my teachers. So, throughout this year, I have been trying to contact or send a little note of appreciation to some of the teachers who really helped me become who I am.

As grateful and nostalgic as I am, I have found that it is really tough to find the time and energy to reach out to old teachers and friends as it is difficult to put into words all that I want to say. So, when a former student recently reached out to me, I was overwhelmed with joy and incredibly impressed.

I was Sandy’s (name has been changed) math teacher. She and I spent roughly an hour or two together every day for a year and a half. While we learned a lot of basic math in that time, we also learned way more about each other and ourselves. We learned together through laughter and sometimes even tears, whether we were working on math or not.14-15_JVs in Service_St. Xavier_Pretty Eagle_Catherine Morrison and Elle Ross (16)

Unfortunately, Sandy switched to another school and I was no longer her tutor. I was crushed. She started at another school and I kept tabs on her the best I could by sending notes, but I didn’t hear much of a reply. A few months later, I received a call from Sandy who said she received my note and asked if I would tutor her in math. I was shocked and ecstatic that she made such a big and brave effort to call a former teacher and ask for help. We were able to meet at the library, continue our lessons, and finish her math homework. I was happy to hear she was doing well in math because of the confidence she gained from our lessons. This experience helped me remember why teaching is not only so important to learning, but why teaching and service is rooted in building relationships.

Living with the Land and Building Community

JV AmeriCorps member Sarah Komisar serves at the Sitka Conservation Society in Sitka, Alaska. Below Komisar shares her experience teaching Sitka’s youth how to live with the land and build community through the processing of deer. 

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Miller explains how to process deer while respecting animals and native traditions. Photo by Bethany Goodrich

Living with the land and building community can be done in many ways. As a JV AmeriCorps member at The Sitka Conservation Society (SCS), my placement included working with the Alaska Way of Life 4-H program. During January of 2015, SCS and Sitka Native Education Program (SNEP) partnered to teach Sitka’s youth how to process one of Sitka’s local bounties: deer. The children from the 4-H program and SNEP Culture Class learned from Chuck Miller, SNEP Youth Program Coordinator, more than just how to butcher a deer as he removed the hide from the animal.

Miller shared with students the customary traditional practices of deer processing. Right away, Miller said, “It is important to not waste, and it is disrespectful to the animal to say ‘eww’ or ‘that’s gross’ because that animal gave up its life for you, so you can live.”

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Students learn how to wrap meat in freezer paper. Photo by Bethany Goodrich

The children were certainly not squeamish. No ‘ew’s resounded from the audience of eager and fascinated onlookers. The first thing he pointed out was that the head of the deer was missing. Chuck explained that the brain of the deer could be mixed with urine and used to tan the hides long ago. The children learned that the hoofs could be boiled down and used for rattling sticks to dance with. The hide was removed carefully, and the kids discovered that it could be used for clothing or drums. The children eagerly peered over each other to get a look at the deer’s heart, liver, and stomach. Chuck explained that the tendons are so strong that they have been used for battle armor, dream catchers, and to latch many other things together.

The class also discussed the Alaska Department of Fish and Game regulations and the importance of limitations on does for protecting fawns to conserve the population.

Miller shared with students how to respect the animal by properly processing the meat, as well as by not wasting parts of the deer. He then explained how respecting the animal transfers to respect for the community: the first deer of the year you get should never be kept to yourself.

“You give it away to somebody who is a widow, an elder, or both. You want to make sure you take care of people in the community who cannot hunt for themselves and our elders.” One of the boys in the group whispered to his friend, “I’ll give it to my grandma.”

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Deer processing complete! Photo by Bethany Goodrich

The class was able to see the deer processing steps all the way from removing the hide to wrapping the meat in freezer paper. The kids shared stories of their own deer hunting experiences and favorite recipes as they packaged the meat. Students were enthralled and walked away with both a practical understanding of the deer butchering process as well as a stronger respect for this treasured resource.

The Sitka Conservation Society looks forward to partnering with the Sitka Native Education Program in the future to teach Sitka’s youth how to live with the land and build community.

Choosing St. Labre

Ben Rumbaugh serves in Ashland, MT, as a Dormitory Assistant for St. Labre Indian School. Here he addresses the importance of education for his students and their Native communities.

The St. Labre Indian School provides education and a multitude of resources to children in the nearby Northern Cheyenne and Crow Indian reservations. A significant aspect of attending high school at St. Labre is that a large percentage of students live in the school’s dormitory on campus. This incredible facility enables students from the reservations – some of which live up to 125 miles away – to attend St. Labre. During the school week the dormitory is home for these students, who return to their families on weekends. Consequently, some students travel six hours a week just to attend school!

A snapshot of Ashland

A snapshot of Ashland

This astonishing reality raises several questions for me: Why are students going to such great lengths to receive their education at St. Labre? What are the conditions of the tribal schools, which are closer to their homes, that these students choose St. Labre despite the distance? Ultimately, how will their secondary education prepare these students for self-sufficiency so that the cycle of poverty – which is a blatant aspect of life for a number of the students – be broken? Attempting to answer these questions has helped me begin the long process of discerning my time and place with this exceptional community.

My position at the dorm involves supporting residents so that their home-away-from-home is hospitable and sets them up for academic success. This support takes many forms: it can be as stressful as making sure homework is done on time, as fun as cheering for them at sporting events, or as simple as watching a movie with them to unwind after a long day at school. By providing a stable and supportive environment at the dorm, students are prepared to take advantage of St. Labre’s education.

Through building relationships with the students, I have gained a sense of why they chose to attend St. Labre. The most common answer I get is that they come because of the post-secondary scholarship opportunities. Because St. Labre is a private, Catholic institution with an extensive donor base, the school has the resources to offer its graduates scholarships to pursue higher education. For many of the students, the traveling and time away from home is worth this opportunity.

Teepees_Ben RumbaughThis commitment also highlights the lack of alternative support systems in the area for post-graduation sufficiency. If students have to travel such distances to be guaranteed post-secondary support, then what is that saying about the schools that are closer to their homes? I attended high school in a predominately white, Midwestern community. Comparing my experiences with accounts given from my students, I cannot help but notice discrepancies in the educational system. It makes me wonder about the resources available to tribal schools and subsequently the support they can provide their students. There is a significant need for dialogue with these communities so that problems can be identified and addressed in order to bridge the educational gap.

One problem that has been communicated by the students at the dorm is that they do not know what post-secondary opportunities exist for them. Because of our current system, many students are under the impression that any education after high school involves another four years of college and they are immediately turned off to that much additional schooling; many do not realize that higher education can take many forms whether it be vocational, two-years, four-years, etc.

Ben (on far left in top row) with his Ashland JV AmeriCorps community

Ben (on far left in top row) with his Ashland JV AmeriCorps community

These conversations have led me to start an initiative that makes resources about post-secondary opportunities available to students who live at the dorm. Placing these resources in their home-away-from-home will allow students the time and atmosphere to consider their potential for education after graduation from St. Labre. With hope, these resources will help students achieve self-sufficiency and, in turn, will create a more stable community.

St. Labre is certainly a unique experience in education. My position at the dorm has given me the opportunity to engage students in a more holistic fashion; I’m not only providing academic support, but also supporting them in a consistent and loving home. Although it’s not perfect (in a home of sixty-plus teenagers, conflict is inevitable), the dorm is an important element in St. Labre’s mission of providing education to the Northern Cheyenne and Crow tribes. There is no doubt that education plays an important role for developing a sustainable community with adequate services. While questions surrounding education can have vague and weighty answers, they highlight a need for dialogue with marginalized communities. I’m learning that this type of dialogue is an important step in finding real, effective solutions towards social justice.

Sitka Goes Hiking

Courtney Bobsin serves as a JV AmeriCorps member in Sitka, AK with the Sitka Conservation Society. She shares a story of JV AmeriCorps collaboration with her housemate and fellow JV AmeriCorps member Nick Ponzetti, an Independent Living Specialist with Southeast Alaska Independent Living.

Sitka Courntey Bobsin SAIL hike

Courtney joined Nick for one of Southeast Alaska Independent Living”s monthly hikes to share with hikers about the role, history, and wonders of the Tongass National Forest.

Sitka, a small fishing town in the middle of Southeast Alaska, is surrounded by pristine forests and beautiful Pacific waters. It sits in the heart of the Tongass National Forest, the largest temperate rainforest in the world. As a JV AmeriCorps member, I serve with the Sitka Conservation Society (SCS). At the Sitka Conservation Society, one of our goals is to engage people in the community with the Tongass. My role at SCS is to help foster a sense of community and help teach people to live with the land. I do this through many avenues including leading Alaska Way of Life 4H club or teaching students the importance of supporting local fishing systems through our Fish to Schools Program.

In January, recognizing a unique opportunity, I was able to partner with my housemate, Nick Ponzetti, the JV AmeriCorps member at Southeast Alaska Independent Living (SAIL). Among other services, SAIL offers a monthly hiking club for seniors to help get them on the trails, experience Sitka’s wilderness, and promote an active lifestyle. Guest hikers, such as injury and fall prevention experts, naturalists, and local tour guides often join Nick on the hikes. I connected with the club as a guest hiker and talked with hikers about features of the Tongass, the history of the forest, and the way we have shaped our landscape. I tried to answer any other questions hikers had including questions on identifying plants, birds, and wild edibles. It was a great experience to share the knowledge I have learned with others in the community.

Furthermore, it was a new opportunity to create a partnership between our organizations. Drawing from both our strengths, Nick and I were able to accomplish much more for older people in Sitka than we could have on our own. My knowledge surrounding conservation in the Tongass, and Nick’s concern for independent living added value to the experience for all those involved.  Through this collaboration, both organizations were able to address needs of the community; SAIL promoted an opportunity to get seniors active and socially engaged, while the Sitka Conservation Society built community and connected people to the Tongass. As JV AmeriCorps members, Nick and I helped construct a beneficial partnership which may have otherwise never existed. Record numbers showed up for our collaborative hike, showing how the goals of any one organization are important, but we can build a stronger community when we work together.

AmeriCorps Week 2013: Big Education Happens in Small Towns

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Education and Youth:  AmeriCorps places thousands of teachers, tutors, and mentors into low performing schools, helping students succeed in school and gain skills necessary to get 21st century jobs.

Tomorrow, the Corporation for National and Community Service travels to Colorado to highlight the focus of AmeriCorps on education. Twenty JV AmeriCorps members across the Northwest serve to bring the best educational opportunities to students, particularly those in rural and remote areas. Elaina Jo Polovick serves as a dorm assistant to 80 students who live too far away from school to travel back and forth each day. She shares her story of the big things happening in small town Ashland, MT.  

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JV AmeriCorps members serving in Ashland, MT 2012-13!

In a town where the population is less than a thousand, and the town consists of about twelve buildings on one street, one might think there isn’t much going on. I never would have thought my life here would be filled with exciting and fun opportunities but it has been just that. I serve as a JV AmeriCorps member  in the Southeast corner of Montana, in remote town called Ashland, with St. Labre Catholic Indian School. It has been a  privilege to be part of all that the dedicated teachers make possible for the students here.

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The St. Labre campus in Ashland, MT.

Recently, one of my fellow JV AmeriCorps members brought a world famous author to come and visit St. Labre. Craig Johnson, author of the best-selling Walt Longmire series (and now television show!) came to speak and inspire our students. Craig Johnson is from a small town in Wyoming not too far from Ashland and writes about a sheriff from a small town in Wyoming. Our students were able to hear from a person who lives in a place similar to where they live and has been incredibly successful. In his series the main character, Sheriff Walt Longmire’s best friend is Native American. Craig Johnson spoke with our students about how they come from such a unique part of the world, have such an incredible culture and heritage, and can go on to do anything they want. So many of my students face discouragement and disappointment; it was fantastic to hear the kind of encouragement he was able to offer them.

Sometimes big things like having a visit from a best-selling author can happen in Ashland, but more often it is the little things that make a big difference.

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St. Labre’s Dormitory Cafeteria

I serve at the St. Labre Dormitory where we house about sixty high school students who live too far away to commute to school during the week. Our students come from the Northern Cheyenne and Crow reservations and many times when they walk in the door on Sunday, they come with more than just physical baggage. Seeing the struggles that many of them face, it can be easy to understand their discouragement, but every day my amazing students remind me of why I’m here. A couple weeks ago, one of the students who I have struggled to connect with came to me for help with some homework assignments; she was failing a class. I spent hours over the course of the week sitting with her and helping her through the assignments. As we worked, we would talk about how her day was and how things were going, and every day we learned a little more about each other. By the end of the week, she would smile when she saw me, and the next week when her grade shot up, she came and thanked me for all the help I had given her. I was not only able to help her with her school work but show her that I am invested in her as a person. These everyday experiences may seem small to some, but I can see that in the eyes of many of the students these are the real big things.

I have fallen in love with the students here and this community and it is because these big things can happen. The dormitory is its own special family where the students and staff care about each other. Although we come from different backgrounds, I feel like I am part of the dorm family. Some of my favorite moments have been when I’ve been able to relax and have fun with the students, and it is always wonderful when that can be connected to learning. This past week, I helped a couple boys write sonnets for English class. I never would have thought I would have so much fun working on poetry with freshman boys in high school. They wrote poems about basketball, their shoes, and their snap-back hats. The rhymes were definitely unique. I don’t know that Shakespeare would have used “super fly” as an end rhyme, but it certainly made sense for some of my students. In those small moments, when what I do is appreciated and full of joy, I realize that being here big things are happening to me. I’m changing and becoming a better person with greater understanding, because as much as I help my students they also help me. Every day they help me grow in patience and compassion, and I am so thankful for the great moments I have everyday living in this beautiful small town of Ashland.