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Outreach

Alaskan village reaches out to CSU for help

July 14, 2010
By Melinda Swenson

When Colorado State University faculty members Pam Jumper Thurman and Barbara Plested flew into the village (located north of the Arctic Circle), the icy slab of river where the men did their summer fishing was just starting to break up.

The view Colorado State University faculty members Pam Thurman and Barbara Plested had of the Alaska interior from the bush plane they took to the village.

Bush flying into Alaska

It takes a certain amount of fearlessness to be ensconced in your office at Colorado State University one day, and the next to find yourself bush flying into a remote, subsistence village in a subarctic region of Alaska.

When faculty members Pam Jumper Thurman and Barbara Plested flew into the village (located north of the Arctic Circle), the icy slab of river where the men did their summer fishing was just starting to break up. There were no cars, roads, hotels, or other conveniences – just framed houses sitting on permafrost surrounded by tundra.

Only a couple of days earlier, the village had made a plea for help to CSU’s National Center for Community Readiness. Project Director Pam Jumper Thurman and Senior Researcher Barbara Plested didn’t hesitate – they immediately made plans to travel to the community. 

Village suffers epidemic of suicides

“A representative of the village came to the Center because she felt we could help them,” Thurman says. “She told us that their village of 600 had had 18 suicides in the past six months—most of them youth. ‘We’re immobilized by our grief,’ she told us.

“While she was visiting with our team in our offices in Aylesworth Hall,” Thurman says, “She was briefly called away. When she came back into the room she said, ‘I have to leave. I just got a call that my nephew committed suicide this afternoon.’

"We told her, 'Whatever it takes, we'll find a way to come to you.'"

She said, 'I have to leave. I just got a call that my nephew committed suicide this afternoon.' We told her, ‘Whatever it takes, we’ll find a way to come to you.'

Finding the funds for the trip

“The Center’s mission is to work collaboratively with under-served and multi-ethnic communities nationwide to address health and quality of life issues such as intimate partner violence, child abuse, HIV/AIDS, and suicide,” Thurman says. “So the suicide outbreak at the village definitely fit the profile of one of our projects.”

The staff at the Center for Community Readiness now had only one problem: finding the funds for the travel, which was very expensive.

Then Thurman got a surprise. “I was stunned to hear that in a few days’ time, the village had raised the funds to get us there,” Thurman says. “Then Lorann Stallones, Director of the Colorado Injury Control Research Center in the Department of Psychology here at CSU, found the money in her budget for two of us to travel to the village.

“So we called the woman who reached out to us on behalf of the community and said, ‘Please use the money you raised to bring others into the process.’”

Fifty loaves of bread

“When we arrived, we walked into the community center where the meetings were to take place,” Thurman says. “We expected maybe 15 to 20 people to be there, and there were one hundred Native people, young and old. The village had reached out to five other villages,” she says.

“Everyone had to be flown in—it’s hard to describe how difficult and expensive it is for them to travel from village to village. But by the time we arrived, the community had already welcomed people into their homes, set up the school to accommodate people overnight, and prepared food. One woman had baked 50 loaves of bread!”

Community meeting

“We started with an open forum,” Thurman says. “People just talked about their grief and cried. Many of them said, ‘How am I going to live without this person?’ As soon as this grieving process began, we saw people supporting each other.

"We gave them 'key informant questions' designed to assess their readiness to address the problem; to throw light on the kind of leadership they had in their community; the community’s climate; its present programs; and the resources that were available to help stop this epidemic of suicides.

“The next day everyone gathered in a big circle and we said, ‘These are your scores. How do you want to use this awareness about yourselves to go forward with an action plan for your community?’

Elders line the outer walls

“They created their own action plans. This community’s desire to heal their grief and find ways to prevent further suicides took on a life of its own. The whole atmosphere was charged with emotion and caring. It was amazing to see it take place!” Thurman says.

“The outer walls of the community center were lined with elders who had come in to support the effort – most couldn’t hear what was going on, some were blind, yet they sat there from eight in the morning until eleven at night to offer care and support.”

Spirit houses in the neglected village cemetery.

Community develops own plans

Thurman related some of the village’s plans:

  • A woman in the village donated 40 acres of her allotment land to be used for a treatment facility or a place where people could go to restore themselves.
  • There was a neglected graveyard in the village that was full of trash and had become a place where people went to drink. The village came up with the idea to pair an elder with a young person who would go to the graveyard and clean up and tend one grave. The elder would share the history of the person whose grave they were caring for. This would instill pride in the village and its heritage and create a bond between the elder and young person.
  • The men (who wanted to reclaim their cultural roles as hunters, warriors, and protectors in the village) decided they would take the youth out and teach them how to hunt and fish and how to care for the meat and fish they came back with. This bonded the adult males to the youth and inspired the adults to be role models.

'We'd forgotten our strengths'

“Later the villagers talked about how grateful they were to find their strengths, because they’d forgotten them or didn’t recognize them as strengths,” Thurman says.

“We want to help these communities recognize their own strengths and resources,” Community Readiness researcher and trainer Martha Burnside says. “For them that means land, water, elders, youth, culture, and traditions. Their resources came from their volunteerism, their culture, and their creativity.”

“Their greatest accomplishment and their greatest joy is that they had NO suicides in the year following our visit to the village,” Thurman says. “It was almost like we were supposed to be there and other people were supposed to be there. It was an honor to be invited into their circle.”

The arctic sun as seen from the village where the Community Readiness project took place.

Villager expresses thanks

The woman who initially came to CSU for help told Today @ Colorado State, "Thank you for giving me this opportunity to honor Pam and Barbara for dedicating themselves to our people in Indian Country.

"They were so happy to help. I can still remember the hope that people felt.  I can also remember how people finally decided to talk openly and honestly about suicide.

"Many walked away with hope, thanks to the simple but profound process of the Community Readiness Model."

Facts about the Center's work

  • The National Center for Community Readiness is a part of the Department of Ethnic Studies at CSU.
  • The Community Readiness manual that was used with the villagers in Alaska has been printed in English, Chinese, and Spanish.
  • The World Health Organization used CSU’s Community Readiness manual to create a national prevention policy for child maltreatment in China.
  • The model has been presented in Israel, Italy, Siberia, Liberia, Ethiopia, Sudan, St. Croix, St. John, Trinidad, and Wales.
  • When the model was presented in Israel, the Israeli government allowed representatives from Palestine to cross the border to attend the meetings and to stay after the meetings.
  • The First Nations Behavioral Health Association recognized the Community Readiness program as one of the nine best practices in the field.

Contact: Pamela Thurman, Ph.D.
E-mail: pamela.thurman@colostate.edu