By Janet Hall, Communications Director
The kids poured into the small white city building in the center of Hooper Bay: middle-schoolers, high schoolers, and fifth-year seniors still working toward graduation. They came to the youth and Elders building one cold February night to dance, sing and drum, to be with one another, to save one another. They call themselves the Native Survivors.
— Lisa Demer, Alaska Dispatch News, February 21, 2015, Dance, Sewing and Hunting Provide a Path to Health for Hooper Bay.
The Native Survivors is a youth group that is reviving old traditions and skills, initiated from a desire to stop teens from killing themselves. They find peace through sewing and friends through dance. Wilma Bell is the catalyst behind the initiative which is organized through the Building Initiatives in Rural Community Health (BIRCH) AmeriCorps program. The program aims to increase resiliency in 12-18 year olds in order to prevent tobacco and other substance abuse and suicide.
The health needs of rural Alaska Native youth are unique. In a time of cultural revitalization statewide, youth are simultaneously witnessing the effects of generational trauma. A disproportionate number of Alaska Natives suffer from alcoholism, suicide, physical and sexual abuse, tobacco and drug use, and a lack of education and economic advancement. In Alaska, substance abuse in particular is associated with many devastating concerns, from mental illness to poverty. For youth – whose brains undergo critical developmental phases – substance abuse is a behavior capable of serious consequences.
Wilma launched the group after an unusually bad year for suicide in the community. “What pushed me to do this was my stepdaughter who I lost to suicide. This had a huge impact on me and my other children,” said Bell. In 2010, at least eight people committed suicide in Hooper Bay. This was a devastating loss to the traditional Yup’ik Eskimo Bering Sea community of about 1,100. The suicide rate among Alaska Natives is almost four times the U.S. general population rate, and is at least six times the national average in some parts of the state. Since the formation of Native Survivors in 2013, no one has committed suicide in Hooper Bay. “Because of us,” Bell said, “these kids are inspired and encouraged even if they make a mistake, they are not discouraged.”
Hooper Bay is a “dry village”, prohibiting the sale of liquor but this doesn’t keep people from bootlegging and making home brew. Bell struggled with alcohol in the past although she has been sober for several years. She shares her experiences with the teens by describing the trouble it brings to families and teens. Wilma grew up in Hooper Bay and is the middle child of 13 children. When she was young, she lived with her family in a two-bedroom home. As a teen mother, she dropped out of school more than once and eventually graduated after much urging by her sister who convinced her that having a high school diploma would lead to more opportunities.
Before volunteering with the BIRCH program, Wilma was a community and behavioral health aide. Wilma has six children. Recently, she adopted a little boy and said, “I want to make sure Hooper Bay is safe enough for my young son to live happily.” At just 4 feet 9 inches tall, she is small yet powerful and when she hears of issues with a teacher at the Hooper Bay School, she quietly observes and intervenes as needed.
In the spring, the youth group walked the tundra with the Elders to collect greens. They are also planning to go hunting with the Elders in the fall. According to Sonia Vent, BIRCH Program Coordinator, who works closely with Wilma said, “Wilma is looking into the future and preparing youth to take her position. She is a global and strategic thinker who incorporates culture in her work. Wilma is engaging Elders by honoring and respecting their traditional knowledge which is making the program effective.”
Wilma Bell stepped up in her community and is following the AmeriCorps motto of ‘Getting Things Done’ and making it work in rural Alaska. She saw a need in her community, took action, found a solution and is making a difference.
AmeriCorps members respond to local needs and make a difference by improving lives and local conditions through hands-on service and capacity building activities. RurAL CAP and their supporting partners have provided opportunities for rural communities through AmeriCorps programs for 20 years. During 2014, 65 locally-hired rural AmeriCorps and VISTA members increased their employment skills and dedicated 46,600 hours of service in 20 communities.
Various excerpts of the narrative are from the Alaska Dispatch News article, Dance, Sewing, and Hunting Provide a Path to Health for Hooper Bay, February 21, 2015.