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California dreams realized, rural Alaska students seek help to reach Washington, DC

Alex DeMarban

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Alaska Dispatch presents a special event to share experiences of growing up and living in rural Alaska, all captured in a unique documentary to be screened at Bear Tooth Theater in Anchorage.

The event aims to raise money for students of Gusty Michael School in the village of Stony River, Alaska, to fund their school trip to Washington, D.C., later this year. In attendance at the screening will be several of the students from the rural school, their teacher, and the filmmaker.

Date: April 12, 2012
Time: 11:15 a.m.-1 p.m.
Location: Bear Tooth Theater,
1230 W. 27th Ave., Anchorage

LEARN MORE: Rural Alaska dreams: From Stony River to Washington, D.C.

(Original story 2/21/12) A batch of soft-spoken village kids who became southern California celebrities during a mega field trip last year are racing to raise money for their next big excursion to the nation's capitol.

The Gusty Michael School in Stony River faces a possible shutdown due to a lack of enrollment, and Debi Rubera wants to make sure her students get one last chance to see the world as long as she's their teacher.

The school's seven students have applied for White House clearance in hopes of meeting President Obama. They've launched a Facebook page to generate support. And they're once again raising funds at the general merchandise store they created in their village of some 40 residents.

Ranging in age from 4 to 14, the Alaska Native kids will be joined by chaperones such as Rubera and the handful of student travelers who went last year but have graduated or moved to bigger villages.

Santa Barbara filmmaker intrigued

Stony River, situated on an island deep up the Kuskokwim River some 250 miles west of Anchorage, is so isolated and quiet the students often speak in whispers. Once a trading post serving miners, its population has dwindled as elders die and the young move on.

Last year's 10-day trip spawned national interest after the students sought donations with letters to media outlets and corporations. Having never left Southwest Alaska, some of the kids hadn't seen street lights, sports cars and escalators -- let alone museums, colleges and theme parks. The feel-good story felt even better when residents and business in southern California, including the 1,000-acre Restoration Oaks Ranch, pitched in free lodging, meals and tickets.

Michael Warner, a filmmaker from Santa Barbara, latched onto the story and captured the kids' journey starting in Stony River -- just getting to Anchorage required $6,000 and three charter flights in a small plane. He produced short, powerful documentaries about the trip -- including “Leaving Alaska,” which recently won positive reviews at the Santa Barbara film festival. He was moved watching the Alaska kids experience a world they'd only seen on TV and through the Internet, he said, and hopes to create a foundation to fund similar learning trips for other isolated schools.

By teaching remote schoolchildren about jobs and opportunities they might not know about, such excursions could be an antidote to the rampant suicides among young Alaska Natives, he reasons.

"When you're isolated, you can be depressed. You can get into a downward spiral. Part of that is feeling hopeless with regard to your future," said Warner, owner of Pacific Sun Productions. "But when you can get out and realize there are possibilities and opportunities and people who can help, it can give kids different perspectives on their future and prevent them from ever entering that state of mind."

Struggling to educate

Planning for the first big trip began in 2008. Fresh from Oregon, Rubera faced the same dilemma that has stumped countless new teachers in Alaska. Her elementary students stared blankly when she asked what they dreamed of doing one day.

"Ooh-kay, how do I teach these kids?" she wondered.

The school's lead teacher, Rubera teaches pre-kindergarteners to sixth graders. Lessons in their Lower 48 textbooks centered on things her kids had never seen. Imagine trying to describe street curbs when the nearest paved road is 200 miles to the west, in the hub city of Bethel. Or discussing centrifugal force when your students have never ridden a merry-go-round.

The group had initially planned to visit Washington, D.C. To pay for the trip, the students opened a store at the school, and quickly learned that ice cream was a hot seller. But after three years, they'd earned only $16,000.  

Enter Plan B

A Santa Barbara home-schooling mom named Jeanne Rodkey once lived in Stony River. She proposed the idea of a West Coast visit, during which the kids could still take in museums, zoos and universities, while home-schooling families could act as a sister school providing peers, pen pals and support.

After the school's plea for help made several Alaska news sites, including the Alaska Dispatch, donations flowed in from around the country. Soon they had the $40,000 they needed. The group visited natural history and maritime museums as well as the zoo in Santa Barbara. They visited Disneyland, an old Catholic mission and surfed in the Pacific. For the first time, they rode horses, saw cows and swam with dolphins. They spoke with firefighters, policemen and scientists at colleges -- even lighting a bulb with saltwater and making liquid nitrogen ice cream.

Learning about jobs that don't exist in Stony River and visiting the Ronald Reagan Presidential Foundation and Library stood out for Mary Bobby, a 14-year-old who wants to become a pilot or a nurse. The trip boosted her self-assurance.  

"In the village, all we could do is read books and see things on TV, but since we went down there, we got to experience them firsthand. That gave me more confidence in myself to speak out more," she said.

Robert Gusty Jr., who graduated last year and recently became the first person in his family to attend college, is pursuing a law enforcement career at the University of Alaska Fairbanks. He rode around with a California police officer, something he'd never done in Stony River, which has no police. He might become a state trooper and work in rural Alaska.  

"He was so thrilled to do that," said Rubera.

Robert's younger brother, Brad Gusty, now a high school senior, said he's planning to return to Santa Barbara next year to attend a community college -- he felt welcomed there -- before moving onto a four-year school, probably in the medical field.

In the beginning, Gusty was skeptical whether the trip would happen. Now that it has, it's helped him improve scores on the ACT college placement test.

"That trip showed me that anything is possible," said Gusty. "Anything can happen if you put your mind to it."

Last fall, one of Warner's short documentaries, Alaska Dreams, aired to more than 1 million households across southern California. Click here for a trailer. A man who had once lived in Alaska saw the show and got in touch with Warren. He'd heard about Brad Gusty's interest in attending college in Santa Barbara and said his family would help pay for lodging and books.

"It's not a big foundation," Warner said, "just a family moved and touched by this story who decided they wanted to help this young man succeed."

Will the school close?

Students are furiously preparing for their trip to Washington, D.C., in mid-May. The students had planned to visit the capitol and other East Coast locales next year, but the falling student population made a trip this year critical, said Rubera.

With only seven students, the school is three students below the minimum threshold needed for state funding to pay for the school's operations, such as maintenance and heat. The Lime Village school 45 miles from Stony River closed in 2007 when its student numbers fell to six.

Schools are community centers in rural Alaska, and districts fight to keep them open because losing a school could mean losing a village if families with children move away. The Kuspuk School District is considering picking up the state's costs -- the district would still receive the state's base student allocation for each student -- and keeping the Stony River school open next year if the population doesn't rise to 10. That's a decision the board will make.

With the future uncertain, the students are planning to visit the state's congressional delegation to talk about the value of last year's trip. They want to visit Smithsonian museums, Georgetown, Penn State, go caving and visit the National Aquarium in Baltimore, among other things.

The lesson plans around that trip began long ago. One older student interested in a veterinary career is writing a zookeeper in Washington, D.C., asking how to keep wild cats alive. Another's learning about the gray wolf. Others are studying colonial battlefields.

With $7,000 in proceeds from their school store, Rubera's looking for cheap lodging and hoping to bring in at least another $33,000. She's learning to write grants. And the students have created podcasts talking about the value of last year's trip, which they're planning to send to state lawmakers in hopes of raising money.

They're asking the public for help again, too. You can send donations to Gusty Michael School, Attn: Brad Allen, PO Box 49, Aniak, AK, 99557.

Mary Bobby, the 14-year-old who might become the first pilot in her family, said she's eager to visit the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum. She hopes other remote schools can take such trips.

"Hopefully, this will be a voice for the other schools that don't have the opportunity to travel," she said.

Contact Alex DeMarban at alex(at)alaskadispatch.com