Friday, March 04, 2011

One Person Making a Difference - The Iron Dog and Suicide Prevention in Rural Alaska

There are so many issues to write about here in Juneau when you wander around the Capitol.  It's hard to know where to start and how to shape a post so it reaches people.  I'm just going to throw this one out and try to follow up with more on it.

I've been talking to an ordinary, remarkable woman who works in Rep. Alan Dick's office.  After noting a rash of suicides by young men in rural Alaska in a short period, she got desperate.  She and her husband own the village store in Tanana and she sees and hears a lot from all the people coming into the store.

While legislators sit in Juneau and argue abstractly about wording, and worry about who will get credit for a bill, and how it all will affect their next election, Cynthia couldn't stand it any more and last November she sent this letter:

November 20, 2010

Dear Family and Friends,

I am writing a letter with sadness and concern. Many of you have heard of our rash of suicides in our Alaskan Villages, all young men; many our friends and dear family members. In a village, especially with us in our store business, you see these baby boys grow into young men and they are part of your everyday life year round. This is a serious epidemic in all rural Alaska villages: we need to do something immediately. We need to start talking about it! Everyone needs to step out of their comfort zones, stop being self-centered and selfish. We need to go beyond the call of duty to help our children, and village to survive this disaster. There are many people who should be doing something and they are NOT! We as individuals, moms, dads and concerned community members need to bring this demon to light, and the time is now! Actually, yesterday!

Our family has been part of the Iron Dog Snow Machine race, a group of wonderful, hard-working young men, who a lot of our your village boys look up to; they come to the store to pour over the Iron Dog Racing Pamphlet. They pick out their favorite racers, get to the computer to follow their teams and run to the riverbanks to meet and greet them. These racing men are celebrities among the groups of children in the different rural communities. They look up to these men as Heroes. I approached last years Iron Dog Champions; Tyler Huntington of Galena and Chris Olds of Eagle River about this issue of suicide. These two young aspiring athletes are willing to take on the huge task of educating and bringing awareness to the prevention of suicide. I am in the early stage with the boys; developing a strategy to attack this huge problem. I am wishfully thinking, dreaming, kicking around ideas and talking out loud to you about a plan I foresee to help with this cause.

Let’s establish a bank account for donations, get the boys sports cards with their pictures on the snow machines “Team 10” on the back have a catchy phrase such as “take a ride to prevent suicide!” include prevention hotlines, and phone numbers for crisis centers in Alaska or whatever is appropriate. We can have the boys handout the cards and talk in villages with their layovers—McGrath, Galena, Unalakleet, Nome, Tanana etc. We should go to all the newspapers—statewide (Nome, Bethel, Barrow etc.) and publicize this. I would like the funds raised for the awareness be used for a HUGE Educational and Awareness Summit in Galena. I’ve chosen Galena because one, it’s Tyler’s home town; two, there are two hundred rural youth from all over Alaska at the Galena Interior Learning Academy; plus a another school uptown ranging from grades K-12. Galena is also surrounded by many villages in the Yukon—Koyukuk Region that is plagued with this epidemic. This reminds me of the Iditarod race, where people are dying and we all need to work together to get the medicine to our villages to save our children.

What is the future of out villages when we have no young men to lead us? No elder Native men to guide love and nurture our children. Our future looks dim today, it’s very sad. I believe this gathering should bring our problem to light, families are a key and foundation, and they should be included! We need professional people, counselors (esp. Family Counseling), inspirational speakers, young leaders who have succeeded to tell their stories. Open forum discussions, as communities what are we doing wrong? How can we as individuals help? What can we look for? We need an infrastructure put in place to continue support; training needs to be assimilated in the program. We cannot go to meetings, get free travel, free hotels, free car rentals and per diem and not bring anything home to benefit our children and the future survival of our homes. We need to walk our talk, get out from our computer desks; let’s start putting pieces of our puzzle back together; make us whole again.

Initially our Native people were the toughest of the tough! Made to go an extra mile to survive the harshest environments; but look at us today! We are in a slow downward spiral, our children are dying and we are walking away as they cry and need our help. I would like all of you to seriously read this, pray and ponder about it. Do some soul searching; find what you as an individual can do in your corner of the world. Let’s band together as a whole to follow this mission through. Please call or email me, if you can contribute to our mission.

I’ve discussed this with Tyler and Chris, The Iron Dog Director and the Galena School. If any of you know of any financial assistance, donations, grants, counselors, speakers, family counselors etc. in your city, tribal, state or federal offices ask for help; anything will help. I am open to all assistance and suggestions; it will be greatly appreciated. Thank you for taking the time to read this, please make it your mission. Hopefully through all of our unselfish contributions we can make a good change for our children’s future. It’s time to go to war, get your troops together and meet me on the front lines.

With Much Love,

Cynthia Erickson and Family

P.S. I have e-mailed this to my circle of friends and family, please forward this on to yours.

Once she got started, others helped.  There was a second letter and Cynthia started connecting.  The State of Alaska Suicide Prevention Council got involved and now has information on their webpage about the Iron Dog Suicide Prevention program.

But there is still a lot to do and Cynthia is busy making lists of villages and contacts.  This has to have the cooperation of the villages, but suicide is just one of the symptoms of other problems.  Coming down to Juneau to work in Rep. Dick's office was another big decision for her to meet people who can help change how the State works with rural Alaska. 

I realize this post sounds pretty glowing and I acknowledge that most of the information I got was from Cynthia herself.  But she's pretty convincing and I'm hoping to get some video of her so you can see for yourself why she's got me enthusiastic about this.  She lives in the middle of the problems.  She knows that silence has been a big enemy.  And she knows she has to find ways to break the silence so that people will do something instead of looking away. 

And I would also say that Cynthia wasn't real happy about my taking a picture or focusing on her.  But she's so committed to ending youth suicides that she's let me do this.

How much of a difference has this made?  I'm not sure.  Maybe there are people out there in rural Alaska who can comment on this.

1 comment:

  1. I'm not a rural Alaskan, but it seems that monies could be spent to support Chris and Tyler going on a speaker circuit around the villages. If they are looked up to as mentors by the younger folks, it could create a new generation of hope and inspiration. Perhaps, Chris and Tyler can help start the dialogue and unite individuals, organizations, etc. They may have inspiring stories to tell, plus, they are tough IronDog champions, representing victory of the Alaskan elements.


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