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Walling out drugs: Grant offers ways to keep Gustavus youths busy

Posted: Tuesday, February 22, 2000

Bored Gustavus students are ready to climb the walls.

And thanks to an unusual grant, there is now a wall to climb, as well as plays to put on, ski trips to plan, and other activities.

``It's about time we had something like this, we've been waiting for a while,'' said student government President Alan Kearns, who helped build the new rock climbing wall in the school gym. ``It will give us something to do.''

Keeping busy is challenging in Gustavus, said Kearns, a senior who has lived there eight years. He plays basketball, hangs out with siblings and friends, and works in the summer.

``I'm pretty open-minded toward finding things to do,'' Kearns said. ``I'll do anything and even I have trouble finding things to do. If you're looking for trouble it's easy to find.''

In some ways it's gotten worse, as the number of young people in Gustavus has dropped. The town has about 50 youths ages 11 to 17 and the school went from eight teachers to four in the last few years, said Kate Boesser, a resident who coordinated the grant.

Being small hasn't kept out problems. Though there's no liquor store in Gustavus, kids still get drunk and use drugs at the same rate as in other towns, Boesser said. The influx of visitors and summer workers brings variety and excitement to the town, and sometimes illicit activities.

``Things get stolen, cars get wrecked, just like any town,'' Boesser said. ``It's only now and then, because we're smaller.''

So Boesser and a group of other community members tackled grant writing, applying for a state incentive grant for drug and alcohol abuse prevention. Boesser believes it is the first grant just for youths in Gustavus, which has no grant writer and isn't even incorporated into a city.

It helped that small towns didn't have to compete with the larger ones. The state divided the $3 million grant money into categories, reserving some just for towns under 2,000 people, said Marilyn Irwin, health facilities surveyor for the Department of Health and Social Services.

``In my mind one of the most exciting things was it's gotten out to some of the smaller villages, like Gustavus,'' Irwin said. ``Prevention money, grant money, doesn't often get out to them.''

Grants also went to Sitka's Seven Circles and Sitka Prevention and Treatment Services, the Juneau Prevention Coalition, and Gateway Mental Health in Ketchikan.

Gustavus' $48,000 grant, combined with $17,000 in donations and volunteer time, will spur a flurry of activities. The plan was created based on a survey last fall of what the Gustavus youths wanted.

The survey itself brought some immediate results. When two students indicated they really wanted a chance to study mechanics, something not offered in the school of 60 students, a community volunteer took them to his shop and helped them rebuild an engine.

Now that the grant money is coming in, the real fun can begin. Kearns and a few other students started building the climbing wall Jan. 22 on one side of the school gym. It will be about 20 feet high and slant at the top to create a steep overhang.

``It's a really neat thing to have. It really gives young people a sense of accomplishment,'' said Principal Peter Kokes. ``You can set the wall to varying stages of difficulty and everyone can succeed.''

Students aren't the only ones looking forward to climbing the wall. Adults will have access to it during open gyms a few nights a week.

``There's some people drooling at the prospect,'' Kokes said.

To break the isolation students feel at such a small school, the grant will also pay for Gustavus to host students from other small schools for a week of academic, athletic and art activities this spring. Students in Pelican, Hoonah, Angoon, Tenakee, Cube Cove and Klukwan will be invited to Spring Fling in Gustavus. The Gustavus students are planning the week of activities, including debate, dance, sports, spelling bees, jeopardy and movies.

``It's every activity you can possibly think of that would keep people from sixth grade to 12th grade busy,'' Kearns said.

He's particularly excited about a play the students will put on at the end of Spring Fling, which will be the first time he's had a chance to act. Students will learn their parts before Spring Fling week, then work with theater professionals from Juneau to stage the play.

Principal Kokes is most excited about a counselor the grant will pay to come to Gustavus one week a month. In recent years a counselor has only come to the Gustavus school for three days a semester, barely time to give guidance to graduating seniors, Kokes said.

``Presently the school isn't equipped to deal with students who are having difficulty focusing on their studies because of things in their lives,'' Kokes said. ``I would find it a real valuable tool to deal with some of the students.''

As an added incentive for students to participate in the activities, they'll earn points. Points will also be given for community service. The points add up and students with enough points will be able to go on a week long trip to Eaglecrest Ski Area in Juneau, a rare chance for most of the students to learn to ski or snow board.

The grant will continue through the summer, providing a sports coordinator for one month to organize soccer, volleyball, basketball and baseball games and an arts coordinator for another month.

``It's just a real low time and this is a great burst of energy for our youth,'' Boesser said.



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