Nothing says ‘life’ like a bright smile, but behind that smile is a soft-spoken young woman with some sad memories and a strong will to live and help others do the same. Originally from Kake, a community of 710 in the Alexander Archipelago of Southeast Alaska, Megan Gregory has been growing and working her way up in Southeast Alaska with an overarching goal of helping people.
“From (graduation), I applied for two summer programs… Rural Alaska Honors Institute in Fairbanks, which was a six-week program, and as soon as I graduated from that program I obtained eight free credits for participating and was accepted to Sen. Lisa Murkowski’s internship for four weeks in Washington, D.C., and that was just a phenomenal experience, getting to shadow her and watching her preside on the senate floor. We worked on the same floor as Barack Obama when he was a young senator so, you know, it was really exciting. I got to senator stalk and get pictures of people like Hilary Clinton and John Kerry. We even ran into Donald Trump one time.”
Gregory is a small town girl with big aspirations.
“It was just major culture shock for me, growing up in a village, I had never been to the East Coast before and I think I cried the first two nights I was there.”
Going from village life to the big city is a big transition, even for a few weeks, but Gregory adapts.
After that summer, she was back in Southeast Alaska, attending the University of Alaska Southeast in Juneau and living a pretty normal life for a woman in her late teens. But at 19, Gregory’s life changed with the death of her father.
“Eventually I want to get my bachelor’s in business with an emphasis in marketing, and I would like to go on to get a master’s in public health — one day. I sort of, my father passed away when I was 19 and I was really close with him, I just, I don’t know, I wanted to get out of Juneau for a little while after that, so I ended up not going to school the following fall, and I moved to Seattle, just to broaden my horizons a little, I wasn’t going to school down there but I wanted to live in a different community for a little while.”
After a year in Seattle, Gregory moved back to Juneau with the intention of starting up at the university again, but she started working with the Sealaska Heritage Institute and said she didn’t quite find the right balance to do both.
While working at SHI, she found opportunities to get involved at a deeper level.
“I decided to apply to become the youth (advisor) when I was working at the Sealaska Heritage Institute back in 2008. I was working in the education and scholarship department as the community project assistant and I, since I worked at SHI, I heard about the youth (advisor) position probably before most people. I mean, everybody was talking about it — it was their first time ever offering the position.”
As youth advisor, Gregory attended all the board meetings and provided a youth opinion to guide the board’s decisions. She didn’t have a vote, but she had an influence.
“I just got a feel for what happened and what their focus was. That was a fantastic opportunity, I would definitely recommend it to all Native youth in Southeast that are eligible to apply. I think you have to be 18, 18 to 30.”
After serving as the youth representative for Sealaska, she applied to be the youth representative for the Central Council Tlingit Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska Executive Council.
“I had a little more freedom with them, they are a smaller council, there are six of them, so it felt like were were a little more tight-knit and we worked together a little more. They gave me a lot of freedom to attend conferences and things that applied to youth.”
It was at this time that Gregory really got her start with suicide prevention.
“One thing they wanted me to focus on, and this actually started when I was at Sealaska, Brendan Kiernan, who used to be with the Juneau School District, started the Juneau Suicide Prevention Task Force with Tlingit and Haida when Bill Martin was the president, and he actually came to me and asked if I would serve on the task force, being that I was the youth representative. I think there was a lot of transition happening at that time, Bill didn’t get reelected as the president, so there wasn’t a whole lot of focus on that task force for a little while, it was kind of in limbo for a little while. So, when I became the youth rep for the Executive Council, SEARHC had just started its 1 is 2 Many Suicide Prevention Task Force and I just happened to hear about it during an Executive Council meeting one day and I asked President Ed Thomas if I was allowed to attend those meetings and he said, “By all means, please go,” and Rob Sanderson, the (second) vice president for Tlingit and Haida is also on that task force and we work together pretty closely. That’s when I really started to get involved in suicide prevention, that’s when I realized it was a huge epidemic, especially in the state of Alaska.”
In a way, Gregory has personal reasons for her involvement. After losing her father at age 19 and her best friend at age 22, Gregory has known loss and depression.
“When I lost my dad, that was really hard for me, I was only 19-years-old and I just, I can’t even fathom what it would be like to lose somebody by suicide. And that, to me, is unacceptable, you should never feel like that is the only way to cope with issues in your life.” Gregory said, “I also lost my best friend when I was 22, so that had a huge effect on me. I can’t imagine once again losing a loved one, especially at such a young age. I felt really depressed after that. I found the only way to make myself feel better was to just get involved in the community. That’s what makes me feel better. That and running.”
Consistently the youngest person at the table, Gregory saw a need for her input and vision in the field.
“I constantly heard them talking about bringing more youth to the table and I heard this at a few different meetings… I thought, ‘What are we going to do to make this happen?’ We didn’t really have an action plan, so I asked them if I could create a program, just to share with them. I didn’t expect them to actually endorse it but when I presented it to them, they did. They liked the idea.”
That’s Gregory’s Youth Ambassador Program. Students from all communities are encouraged to apply to be ambassadors and one will be selected from each community.
It’s a fresh, new program that is still growing and changing to meet the needs of participants and the needs of the state with the highest per capita suicide rate in the country, according to statistics provided by the Statewide Suicide Prevention Council. In 2007, Alaska’s rate was 21.8 suicides per 100,000 people, compared to the national average of 11.5 suicides per 100,000.
Programs like this are of great importance in the Alaska Native community, with the highest rate of suicide among any demographic in the country occurring in Alaska Native men ages 15-24. The rate is 141.6 suicides per 100,00 between the years 2000 and 2009.
There are other programs aimed at youth, Gregory pointed out, but most programs are developed outside Alaska and may not account for the unique needs of Alaska communities.
“I’m working with James Gallanos, the state suicide prevention program coordinator, and we’re working to create a youth gatekeeper training model. We want to create something that’s 45 minutes long, because we don’t want them to sit through an eight-hour training, and kids tend to listen more to their peers, so I proposed that we create a program that they present to their peers, so we’re not going to make these kids listen to us for 45 minutes…”
The Gatekeeper model enables community members to look out for signs that other community members might be thinking about suicide, and provides them the resources to seek help for those in need. The goal for this program is to have youth ambassadors teach their peers to become gatekeepers, since often kids are more likely to listen to other kids, she said.
“We’re hoping to write some scripts and ask these kids to create their own role playing and have contests so kids can incorporate this in their own presentations in their school. We hope to pilot the program with the Youth Ambassadors this fall, since it’s eventually going to be a statewide program. And as I mentioned with SB137 passing, every teacher is going to have this suicide prevention training, at least four hours, so it would be great if we could get at least one teacher to come with these students to get gatekeeper training or safe talk or whatever training their school approves, as we present the gatekeeper training model to the youth, so they can go back and help them facilitate this in front of their peers. It’s still a work in progress, we’re still ironing out the details, but that’s what’s happening.”
Beyond helping to develop programs, Gregory has been involved in organizing and volunteering with other events that seek to empower people of all ages. She volunteers with Girls on the Run and has organized the Every Mile is Worth It Race for the past two years.
Because volunteering and running have been so helpful for her in recovering from loss, she has developed a holistic view of suicide prevention.
“I think when we think of suicide prevention, we need to think of all aspects of living a healthier life. And that means taking care of your environment, taking care of your body, because, you know, if you’re not eating right, you aren’t taking care of yourself exercising, then you probably aren’t feeling very good. That’s why I do things like coordinate the Every Mile is Worth It race — we had huge support from the community and $4,000 worth of prizes donated from local businesses.”
She had representatives from the Southeast 4H Cooperative Extension Service, Slow Food Southeast, Full Circle Farms and Chico bags at the race, hoping to inspire other people to make healthy choices in life.
On top of her work with SEARHC’s 1 is 2 Many suicide prevention program, organizing races and developing new programs, Gregory has been noticed at a national level. She is a youth board member for the Center for Native American Youth, created by former Senator Byron Dorgan, a policy program within the Aspen Institute, with a goal of bringing attention to issues facing Native American youth and to foster solutions, with special emphasis on suicide prevention.
“It was established to address the high rates of suicide across Indian Country and address the issues that Native Youth are facing when it comes to gangs and substance abuse and suicide prevention… We can’t overlook this, it’s not a problem that’s just going to go away.” Gregory said.
She is also working with the National Action Alliance for Suicide Prevention as part of their American Indian - Alaska Native task force.
“The director of the CNAY recently informed me a reporter from MSNBC is writing a series of stories on Indian youth suicide, and is hoping to interview me to learn more about the issue as well as impactful, innovative prevention efforts.” Gregory said.
Right now, Gregory is dedicated to her work in suicide prevention here in Southeast Alaska. Part of the reason she has yet to continue her education is because she is in the midst of so much that she wants to see through to completion, she said.
Working on suicide prevention in Southeast Alaska is a big deal for this girl from Kake, but Gregory is headed for even bigger things. Once she feels satisfied with the work she has done at this level, she dreams of heading to Washington, D.C. to take on policy at the national level. And at this rate, nothing’s going to stop her.
To learn more about the Youth Ambassador Program, visit the Facebook page by searching Facebook for Southeast Alaska Youth Ambassadors.
• Contact Neighbors editor Melissa Griffiths at 523-2272 or at email@example.com.