Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell spoke at the Alaska Federation of Natives convention early Friday morning, pledging to make the state’s rural communities better places to live.
"I pledge to you today that we will not rest as long as the epidemic of violence and sexual assault steals the hopes and dreams of women and children and men in this land," Parnell promised after applauding communities that had joined him in his anti-violence campaign "Choose Respect."
New to that effort this year is the call for "Good Samaritans" to speak up if they are aware of someone who is being harmed, with reigning Iditarod champion John Baker the face of the new campaign. "If you see a team in trouble, step up and help," Baker could be heard to say in a public service announcement video Parnell played for the crowd.
Parnell asked the audience to ponder something he and his administration think about: "Are we making a difference? Is what we do making a difference in the lives of individuals across the state?"
Defending his aid to rural Alaska, Parnell catalogued where he felt the state, under his guidance, is making progress. The ranks of the Village Patrol Safety Officers are growing; up to 88 on the job this year, with more in training, and funding promised for 15 more in 2013.
Three Alaska State Trooper positions were added to support Kotzebue, Bethel and Fairbanks. A trooper post has been established in Selawik. Money for better housing for law enforcement -- $1 million -- will also be in the 2013 budget.
Parnell then transitioned to the theme of education. "Children who are safe are children who can learn," he said, adding that the state's rural communities have "legitimate grievances about education."
Many schools are pitiful and in unsafe shape, he said. After visiting rural schools in 2010, Parnell said he was motivated to adjust the state's funding formulas so that when urban schools get funding, rural schools get funding, too.
The school in Quinighak will be renovated, one in Napaskiak will be replaced, and the next Alaska budget will include $62.4 million for new schools in the villages of Emmonak and Koliganek, Parnell said.
Parnell then turned to another epidemic in the state -- suicide.
"Government is poorly equipped to repair the wounded spirits and broken spirits of those who feel life is no longer worth living," he told the room of conference attendees.
Parnell meant that government alone cannot stop the problem of suicide. Treatment programs for drug and alcohol abuse may help, but so does the outreach that takes place in families, among neighbors and in communities, he said thanking people who have taking time to personally reach out to someone who may be struggling with depression and thoughts of killing themselves.
Parnell closed with an observation touching in the conference's unity theme: "Our strength in Alaska is you, our people."
Contact Jill Burke at jill(at)alaskadispatch.com