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Rural Alaska

Program targeted at helping Bethel teens earns high marks from alumni

  • Author: Lisa Demer
  • Updated: May 31, 2016
  • Published October 25, 2015

BETHEL -- One by one, Bethel teens and young adults took to the microphone Saturday evening, revealing bits of rough lives as they celebrated a program that they said shaped and strengthened them.

Their testimonials underscored new research into Bethel's nearly 20-year-old Teens Acting Against Violence program, or TAAV.

An evaluation by the University of Alaska Anchorage Justice Center released Friday found that TAAV makes a difference and could be a statewide or even national model for success in reaching young people. The survey of alumni examined their views of the program and whether it was effective in its goals of protecting against violence and building resilient adults.

By every measure, it works, said the Justice Center's Khristy Parker, the evaluation's lead researcher.

In one key area, 82 percent of participants said the program increased their knowledge of domestic violence, 77 percent said they learned about healthy relationships and 71 percent said that about sexual assault. They could pick more than one.

Of 86 former and current members 18 and older approached for the survey, 85 participated, an unheard-of rate which in itself shows how much the young people care about TAAV, Parker said. Every one of those surveyed said their time with TAAV was positive and all but one person said they would recommend it to others. More than half were involved for two to three years and went to multiple meetings a week. Some said they wished they could still go. They made friends for life there.

"In some ways, there is bias to the survey because these were people who obviously enjoyed coming and kept coming," Parker said Friday in presenting the results at Bethel's Tundra Women's Coalition, a shelter and advocacy center that houses TAAV. But in every area, from whether they enjoyed program activities to how they applied the lessons to life, the results were highly favorable, she said. "Overall, it was great."

Chance to lead

TAAV combines culture, fun and education on serious issues. The teens go to fish camp and lead a summer camp in Bethel for village kids. Caribou antlers from their hunts decorate the TAAV room at the Tundra Women's Coalition. They make qaspeqs, or kuspuks, the classic hooded pullovers. They plant potatoes for the women's shelter. They go on annual adventure outings to the Lower 48 through Outward Bound that for many mark the first time they leave Alaska. Kids themselves decide what direction to go.

"We think the best way for our teens to learn things, to keep themselves in healthy and safe relationships, is going to be teaching it themselves," said Eileen Arnold, Tundra Women's Coalition executive director. "We think that teens best hear these things from each other."

Hundreds of teenagers have at least dropped by a meeting or two since TAAV started in 1996 but only those who participated in at least five meetings were surveyed. More than 50 are involved now, with 15 to 20 in the core group, Arnold said. It's open to Bethel middle and high school students.

At regular meetings -- three times a week during the school year -- they talk about healthy lives and risky behavior, about violence and drugs, about suicide and depression, about how to make good decisions and become solid adults.

"The more I was here, the more open I got," Wesley Alexie, now 26, said on Friday when he stopped by the Tundra Women's Coalition with his young daughter. He said he became able to speak about the darkest times, a childhood damaged by his parents' drinking, an abusive father, the suicide of his best friend, his own despair. A scar on his forehead marks where he was hit when he was 5.

Alexie was among the alumni who spoke up Saturday at the Yupiit Piciryarait Cultural Center when the survey was presented to the community. The event drew dozens of people including present and former TAAV participants, parents, community members and two statewide leaders in domestic violence prevention. A local chef catered a meal of baked ziti and tossed salad. A TWC staff member brought giant pots of moose stew.

Bethel PRIDE -- a hip-hop dance group trying to expand into other arts -- performed. Its leader, 17-year-old Mike Bialy, told the audience that he gained the confidence through TAAV to form the youth dance group and now, among his many activities, teaches dance at the local fitness center.

Bialy called on individual teens to demonstrate their moves for the TAAV crowd. Some of the trickier ones took months of practice and stretching to master, he said.

Open to all

The program has shifted from its beginnings, when high school leaders and athletes were recruited to be featured in public service announcements promoting healthy relationships. Teens with families in disarray began showing up straight from their rooms at the shelter. Some kids were new in Bethel and came from villages. The Western Alaska hub seemed overwhelming and scary.

Kisha Lee, a TAAV alumni who now works as one of the program coordinators, said she grew through the program too.

"Those outdoor and cultural activities were super extra important," she told the crowd Saturday. She was in sixth grade when she moved to Bethel from Kwethluk and lived with her mother and sister for a while at the shelter, eventually joining TAAV. "I felt I could do an activity that reminded me of home."

The teens hold car washes, sell Krispy Kreme doughnuts, deliver the Tundra Drums and do other fundraising to make the $10,000 needed each year for the annual Outward Bound adventure. Some years there are multiday whitewater rafting trips. Plane tickets usually come from donated miles.

Some of the young people on Saturday spoke softly and said they were still shy. But they wanted to acknowledge the benefits of TAAV. One became a counselor for Yukon-Kuskokwim Health Corp. Five TAAV alumni work in various jobs at Tundra Women's Coalition.

Alexie, who grew up in Akiachak and Tuluksak as well as Bethel, worked for a while as a counselor at a residential psychiatric and substance abuse treatment center. He said he used his TAAV skills to draw out youths and encourage them to make the turn from painful pasts to goals for the future.

The Justice Center survey was designed with help from Tundra Women's Coalition. Michelle DeWitt, TWC's former long-time executive director, said she sought the evaluation to find out if TAAV worked. It was funded through former Alaska Gov. Sean Parnell's "Choose Respect" campaign and cost about $15,000.

"So rarely is there funding for prevention, and perhaps even more rarely, is there funding for any evaluation of that prevention," DeWitt said.

Smarter about life

Parker presented highlights from the Justice Center's 115-page report Friday and DeWitt did the same on Saturday for the community.

Of the young adults surveyed:

• 86 percent said TAAV was relevant to and respectful of Yup'ik culture.

• 96 percent said the TAAV staff gave teens the chance to lead the group.

• 78 percent said they made moderate to big gains in how to avoid and end unhealthy relationships. One participant commented on the survey that she has a "be good or be gone" attitude in romantic relationships.

• 65 percent said the outdoor activities increased their self-esteem and even more, 80 percent, said their skills improved.

• 95 percent said they would intervene if a friend were in a potentially dangerous situation and almost as many, 94 percent, said they would do the same for a stranger.

Based on their self-reports, the TAAV alumni said they were mainly making healthy choices. Almost none had used any illegal drugs in the month before taking the survey. But 28 percent said they had used marijuana and 59 percent had drunk alcohol. DeWitt noted that many taking the survey were 21 and older.

A few had gotten into serious trouble. Some 18 percent had been arrested in the prior year and 20 percent had gotten into a fight, some of them multiple times. One person had sold drugs. A few admitted stealing.

The survey didn't directly address emotional crises. But over the years, at least three long-term TAAV members have killed themselves, including one this year, DeWitt said. Alexie, speaking to the group Saturday, mentioned one who was lost.

Most participants saw themselves as role models and said TAAV taught them they could make a difference.

"TAAV is poised to remain a model for prevention, intervention, and education of middle and high school students in Alaska, if not the country," the report concluded.

The survey may guide organizers to make small changes, such as bringing in more men as mentors. It also points to the power of alumni as an untapped resource for a program that relies in part on adult volunteers and pieced-together funding. One of the coordinators this year is a Jesuit volunteer. Tundra Women's Coalition is looking for stable funding for its popular Teens Lead Ahead camp that brings in dozens of village teens.

Could it be duplicated in villages?

Local people would need to take the lead, said Arnold. TAAV works because it's designed for and by Bethel teens. A village program might look different. TAAV teens make regular trips to villages too, to talk to kids.

"Native communities in rural Alaska have a long history of imported programs that were introduced by people from the outside with good intentions who had no idea of the dynamics or history of a specific community and disempowered them by introducing said programs," she said in an email.

As Saturday's event wrapped up, a 16-year-old stepped up to read a free-flowing poem.

"TAAV is inspiring, fun, and a good way to try and live a healthy and positive life," Gertrude Jimmy said in a quiet voice. "Even when it is hard."

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