FAIRBANKS -- For the second time this week, seven children from the 4-H Club from Tanana held the attention of a large crowd in the Carlson Center, this time before the annual Alaska Federation of Natives convention.
As they did Tuesday at the Elders & Youth Conference, the children spoke in personal terms Friday afternoon about the toll of alcohol abuse, sexual assault and suicide. One child lost her father to suicide. Another lost an uncle. A third described crying herself to sleep on nights when her parents were drunk.
The children made a big impression on the audience earlier this week, prompting AFN leaders to ask them to do it again before the full convention. They received a standing ovation.
While most of the topics the kids talked about were bleak, what happened after their presentation was not.
The Rev. Helen Peters, an Episcopal priest, stepped on stage after the children finished speaking. She took off her blue scarf and placed it at the front of the stage. She wanted to make a gesture to show the children she would like to help.
"I'm going to put a scarf down here and I'm going to pledge $100, so pledge with me for this group,” she said to the convention. “Thank you.”
A few dozen people started walking to the stage to place bills on the scarf. Then a few dozen more rose from their seats.
Within a few moments, the entire audience had joined a procession to the stage. It was like everyone had decided to leave the building at once, only they weren’t leaving.
The scarf disappeared under a pile of cash that exceeded $9,000, money that will be used to expand awareness of the pledge against suicide adopted by the club:
I pledge to live, honor and protect myself from any harm, to love my life, my family, my friends and my village.
Today we stand together to stop suicide in Alaska.
Donations to the 4-H Club won’t cure any of the ills the children described or change the hearts that need to be changed. Still, the procession to the stage sent a message nearly as powerful as the statements by the kids. It made clear that other people understand the frustration, worry and fear that brought the children to the stage.
Peters said the impulse to lay down the scarf was a small signal “that people can help in different ways.”
Cynthia Erickson, the volunteer leader of the 4-H Club, said that the youngest child, a 10-year-old, carried a poster with the word “family” because that is the key to resolving the suicide problem. She said some of what parents do is so simple, but important. “Take your kid out to go pick up beach glass, skip rocks, whittle out a little driftwood boat. I’ll tell you what, they’ll remember that more than going and buying another $80 Xbox game,” she said.
“I hope we can get more support for each of our children, each of our villages,” she said.
Before the children spoke, adults dealt with some of the same issues in their remarks to the convention. State Rep. Ben Nageak, D-Barrow, said his family is just one of many that has experienced the heartbreak of suicide.
"I didn't know it was coming. I didn't see the signs," he said. "But it did come to our family."
He said if you know someone who appears despondent, his advice is to speak up and not look the other way. "Be rude," he said. "Butt in."
"Let's stop this heartbreaker," he said. "It's not bad to talk about it, especially to our young people."