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Helping Alaska kids succeed is a moral choice, not a political one

Tony Hopfinger

Starting Monday night, Alaska Dispatch will be running a three-part series exploring life in Stony River, a dot of a village about 225 miles west of Anchorage, and the possible closure of its small school.

The genesis for the series came about after Dispatch reporter Alex DeMarban in February highlighted the dying school’s efforts to raise money for a student trip to Washington, D.C. The students and teacher were successful in raising funds last year for a trip to Southern California. Here’s how Alex described their effort this year to get to D.C.:

A batch of soft-spoken village kids who became southern California celebrities during a mega field trip last year are racing to raise money for their next big excursion to the nation's capital.

The Gusty Michael School in Stony River faces a possible shutdown due to a lack of enrollment, and Debi Rubera wants to make sure her students get one last chance to see the world as long as she's their teacher.

The school's seven students have applied for White House clearance in hopes of meeting President Obama. They've launched a Facebook page to generate support. And they're once again raising funds at the general merchandise store they created in their village of some 40 residents.

Ranging in age from 4 to 14, the Alaska Native kids will be joined by chaperones such as Rubera and the handful of student travelers who went last year but have graduated or moved to bigger villages.

Having spent some time in rural Alaska, Alex’s story resonated with me. I’ve traveled to other villages where students relished in the experience of taking an annual field trip somewhere in the Lower 48. Some adult rural Alaskans I’ve spoken to have told me it’s the only trip they’ve ever taken outside of Alaska.

I thought it went without saying that our fellow residents who live in rural Alaska don’t always have the same financial resources or opportunities as those of us who live in the urban centers. I myself am a transplant from a Chicago suburb, where I got to take two student field trips while growing up – one to the Illinois capital city of Springfield and another to Washington, D.C. It was a given for me; my parents had the money and my school, one of the better-funded public schools in the country, had no problem making it happen for most of our students.

So in March, we at Alaska Dispatch decided to try to help the kids of Stony River make their D.C. trip a reality. They need to raise $40,000. We’re not in the business of fundraising, and we’ve been trying our best to come up with ways to help them reach their goal, with our staff giving their own money and time, along with a host of sponsors, such as GCI, which has donated 200,000 air miles.

Alex’s series this week on Stony River will hopefully draw attention to this corner of rural Alaska. So will an event we’re hosting at the Bear Tooth Theater in Anchorage on Thursday.

Through generous sponsors, including Vanderpool Flying Services, The Hotel Captain Cook and Bear Tooth, we are flying some of Stony River’s students to Anchorage, as well as a film director who chronicled their trip last year to Southern California in a documentary. The students and director will present the documentary to a theater mostly filled with urban kids – students of the Anchorage School District. And through this exchange, we will help bridge that urban-rural divide that we Alaskans have a hard time talking about without resorting to racially-tinged arguments.

We’ve also set up a Web page in which you can donate via credit card to the Stony River effort. You can help by clicking here.

Many have generously donated and have been supporting the effort. For that, thanks so much. However, it seems whenever we’ve tried to promote this particular effort, the comment boards light up with negativity. “Why should we pay for these kids to go on a field trip? Why are they so special?” is the general tone of some. And another: “Why don’t Alaska Native corporations pay for them?” And yet another: “What are the Natives going to do for me?”

Reading these comments has been one of the more eye-opening experiences I’ve had since launching Alaska Dispatch.

The director who chronicled the Stony River field trip last year to South California says we should talk about the high rates of teen suicide in rural Alaska and how field trips expose kids who don’t always see a lot of hope in their own communities to a larger world – that there are opportunities beyond the villages.

I think he is right.

It was my idea that Alaska Dispatch help raise money for Stony River’s students. I had one simple reason: I spent five years getting to know a high school graduate from Wales, an Inupiat village clinging to the westernmost tip of the North American continent. I profiled him and his struggling village in a story called “To Live and Die in Wales, Alaska,” which was published in The Walrus magazine in 2007.  The young man’s name was Mike Weyapuk. He shot himself in 2005. Here’s an excerpt from that story about one of his happiest moments of his short life, as he had recalled it to me several years before he died:

Mike’s teachers came from states like North Carolina, California, and Minnesota. Some were not much older than he was. They had come looking for adventure. Other teachers were middle-aged and seemed lost. In the early 1990s, Mike’s teacher was a young man who liked to cross-country ski and lift weights. He was like a big brother to the five boys of Mike’s high school class. One fall, the students and their teacher built a snack shop next to the school gym. They sold candy and soda, popcorn and potato chips. They cooked pizzas and delivered them inside old film-reel cases to homes when it was thirty below. The boys were raising money to fund a class trip to the lower forty-eight states, and by the spring of 1993 they had socked away $15,000.

Students in many Alaska villages take class trips, often visiting the places where their teachers grew up. If your teacher is from Southern California, you might fly to see Hollywood. If she’s from Florida, you could spend a week at Walt Disney World. Mike’s teacher was from the suburbs of Minneapolis, Minnesota. There’s not much in these suburbs, but there is an artificial city of Gap stores and Victoria’s Secrets, wedding chapels and roller coasters, and arcades and log-chute rides: the Mall of America in Bloomington, which, in the early 1990s, was the world’s newest, biggest shopping centre.

At the end of the school year, the boys and their teacher boarded a propeller plane in Wales and flew to Nome; then they flew to Anchorage, where they transferred and headed to Seattle; one more plane ride and they arrived in Minneapolis, twenty-three hours after they’d left Wales.

The Mall of America is so enormous that you could fit Wales inside it and still have room for a water park. It boggled the kids’ minds. They spent two days alone exploring the north and west wings, moving from one shop to the next, riding the escalators up and down, until they discovered the video arcades. There were three, and that’s where they spent a lot of their time.

For most of the boys, it was their first and last trip to the contiguous states. They finished high school, dozed into village life, and began to die. Jeff was the first to check out. In 1999, he disappeared while celebrating his twenty-first birthday in Nome. A tourist found his mangled body on a beach, the head missing, the cause of death unknown. On Christmas Eve 2004, Gary went missing in a blizzard. Villagers found his body three months later, when the snow began to melt. By the time Mike killed himself, three of the five boys from his high school class were dead.

Mike killed himself nearly seven years ago. I don’t know if another trip, to Washington D.C., say, funded in part by the citizens of this state, would have kept him and his fellow classmates alive. A trip like the one the Stony River students are trying to embark on could give a little hope after a long winter, a little more knowledge about the world beyond their village. That they matter, too, that this state, and country, needs them to stay alive.

The narrative of Alaska used to be that we relied on each other, and we helped each other, if nothing else, because we all needed each other.

Those kids are asking for help. That call does not deserve to be wrapped into the larger, racially-charged debate about Native corporations and dying villages, politics and government intervention. Whatever kind of conversations Alaska needs to have about such things should not happen on the backs of school children who want to visit the nation’s capital. Let's just make it happen.

Tony Hopfinger is the co-founder and executive editor of Alaska Dispatch.