On a visit to Alaska last week, the leader of the national community service agency AmeriCorps said the group plans to increase its investment in the state.
AmeriCorps received an additional billion dollars added to its budget as part of the American Rescue Plan in 2021. Last year, more than 400 people worked or volunteered with AmeriCorps in Alaska. The federal program spent more than $4.3 million in the state by funding community-led initiatives in schools, youth centers, health clinics and shelters.
AmeriCorps CEO Michael Smith said the investment will grow.
“Not only increase the size, but increase the depth of our relationship — the quality of our relationships. So we’re not just diving in and sprinkling some resources, but we’re helping communities to really address the challenges that they face,” he said.
Smith said he spent “lots of time” with rural and tribal communities because he wants to increase the AmeriCorps presence there.
“We’re looking to figure out how we can go deeper into places of greatest need,” Smith said.
He said part of the reason for the visit is to raise awareness in communities that they can reach out to AmeriCorps to fund their projects.
“Our goal is to support homegrown talent. You know, ‘nothing about us without us.’ Folks in the community have to really lead this work,” he said.
An example is the elder mentor program, which just received a $1 million grant from AmeriCorps. The program’s aim is to provide intergenerational support in schools, and AmeriCorps pays seniors a small stipend for their volunteer service. AmeriCorps has funded the program through Rural Alaska Community Action Program Inc. since 2013. It is active in nine Alaska communities.
Maddy Stokes, who runs the program for RurAL CAP, said the group will use the money to fund more elder mentors in schools, but also to begin a peer-to-peer senior companion program that will focus on cultural connection and companionship between people over age 55. The funding is available through an AmeriCorps program designated for Native Nations and Indigenous Elders grants. RurAL CAP can spend the money over the next three years.
Focus on culture bearers
More than half of the state’s roughly 50 elder mentors are part of what they call the “culture bearer” track, said Stokes.
“The focus is on cultural revitalization and language preservation,” she said. “A lot of the elders that we have in the program either only speak their Native language or speak some English and mostly their Native language.” Alaska Native languages were suppressed in American schools for about 100 years and children were even punished for speaking them.
Sandra Kozevnikoff is an elder mentor in Russian Mission. She just turned 76 and estimated she’s been volunteering with the program for about a decade. She grew up speaking Yup’ik and later learned English in school.
“We didn’t even understand what our poor teacher said on the first day of school and all through the year! Gradually we learned. Poor, poor lady,” she said with a laugh.
Kozevnikoff still speaks Yup’ik as her primary language at home and with friends and family, but she said many students hear the Yup’ik language and understand it, but never speak it.
She said she helps teach the Yup’ik language, culture and traditional values at school because Yup’ik words carry meaning that cannot always be translated, and she wants youth to grow up with that knowledge.
“I want them to understand who they are, what their roots are. Be proud of themselves so they can take this unique language and unique person out and show everybody,” Kozevnikoff said.
Another program Smith said he thinks could grow is the afterschool Resilient Alaska Youth program, whose goal is to build supportive relationships and cultural identity and decrease the amount of substance use and suicide among Alaska youth. It currently employs 15 Alaskans as AmeriCorps members in 13 communities in the state.
The program only recruits AmeriCorps members from within the communities where they will serve. Stokes, who used to run the program for RurAL CAP, said that’s unique — and one of the after-school program’s greatest strengths.
“We’ve got dollars,” Smith said. “We provide resources, and then the local community gets to decide what the best and greatest need is.”
Originally published by the Alaska Beacon, an independent, nonpartisan news organization that covers Alaska state government.