Winter 2016 – Where our Past Meets the Future – The Elder Mentor Program

By Jan Abbott, Elder Mentor Program Manager

Former Elder Mentor Lanie Serame reads to children at the Kodiak Head Start. Photo by Jan Abbott

Former Elder Mentor Lanie Serame reads to children at the Kodiak Head Start. Photo by Jan Abbott

You can’t drive there. But you can take a ferry if it’s either Saturday or Monday – if the seas aren’t too rough. Or, you could fly there – if the fog lifts long enough to land the plane. Kodiak Island is home to the Sugpiaq and Alutiiq Nation of Alaska Natives. There you will find a vibrant Head Start Program serving 40 adorable preschoolers. And, amid those children, you’d find an Elder Mentor helping them build their kindergarten readiness skills and sharing cultural values.

About 250 miles to the north in Anchorage, you will find a robust school district that serves more than 48,000 students. Anchorage School District is one of the most diverse in our nation with more than 90 different languages represented. Forty-four members of Alaska’s Elder Mentor Program volunteer at some of these schools, with more members in training to join their ranks. Muldoon Elementary serves one of Anchorage’s most diverse and economically challenged neighborhoods – and there you will find Sandra Hughes and Rosemary Havens. These ladies are so passionate about “their” kids that they often get into good-natured bragging matches with each other about them.

On the surface, it doesn’t look like either of these communities have much in common, but they do. They each have dedicated teachers working with children who often live in difficult environments and face great obstacles to their education. They also have Elder Mentors in the classroom to provide love, support and guidance to the children who really need the personal support that our Elders are able to give.

Two years ago, the RurAL CAP accepted the challenge to rebuild Alaska’s Elder Mentor Program. With a commitment to make this a strong, statewide program, we set out to recruit schools and Elders. This is a challenge in a state that has very few roads, hundreds of small villages and 18 different indigenous regions. The distance from our farthest north site in Barrow to our site in Ketchikan is more than 1,300 miles – by plane because there are no roads to either community. Currently, 39 Elder Mentors serve in rural communities with more ready to join those ranks.

Honoring the values and cultures that are represented in our state is a privilege for us. We may find it challenging to deliver this program in such remote areas, but the value that our Elders bring into the classroom is immeasurable and worth every bit of effort.

Recently, a principal from a school in New Stuyahok was transferred to a school in Tuluksak that has been experiencing academic, attendance and graduation challenges. One of her first steps was to reach out to the Elder community and recruit volunteers. Her next step was to call us. Within weeks, we were able to place 14 Elders into the program and into the school.

Our Elders bring traditional language, subsistence skills, crafts and values to the students. According to many teachers, the behavior and attention of the entire classroom improves when there is an Elder present. If you ever have the privilege of meeting some of these impressive Elders, you will quickly see why.

For more information about RurAL CAP’s Elder Mentor Program, please call 907-865-7353 or toll-free at 800-478-7227; email or visit

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