Brooke Leslie, 17, has trouble finding teenagers in her home town of Wrangell who are interested in their Native culture and heritage.
Brandon Johnson, 18, and Lydia Henry, 15, of Yakutat, believe many youths in their village would like to know more about Native culture, but the two said adult leaders in Yakutat are unreceptive to the students' ideas.
While their struggles are different, all three student leaders agree that young voices need to be heard better by Native leaders in Southeast Alaska. They joined 17 other youth last week in a five-day youth leadership training program organized by the Tlingit-Haida Regional Housing Authority and funded by a federal drug elimination grant from the Department of Housing and Urban Development.
The program was focused on creating leaders and exposing youth to healthy alternatives to drugs, alcohol and crime, said Annette Ulmer, THRHA grants coordinator. THRHA has been training youth in leadership and life skills since 1994, using more than $1 million in government grants.
"We're providing leadership training," Ulmer said. "These are our future leaders who we will be working with at the housing authority."
The first part of the five-day program was organized by United National Indian Tribal Youth Inc., or UNITY, a national organization dedicated to promoting personal development, citizenship and leadership among Native American youth.
This is the first year that UNITY has organized a THRHA leadership training program, said Barbra Holian, THRHA communication officer.
"Essentially what we're trying to do is to get them to see that they can make a difference," said Pricilla Flores, who works for the Tucson, Ariz., school district as a UNITY organizer.
The students participated in team-building activities, discussed the characteristics of good and bad leaders, and honed their public-speaking skills.
Henry and Johnson, who serve as vice-president and president of the Yakutat Tlingit Tribe Youth Council, respectively, said they were learning how to combat negative attitudes toward youth by adults in their village.
"They told us to keep fighting and sooner or later (our leaders) will sit down and listen to us," Henry said.
Leslie, a Wrangell youth, added that UNITY was teaching the students a variety of ways to approach issues.
"In different communities there are different problems, and the solutions are different," said Leslie, who last November coordinated a school assembly for Native American Heritage month. She hopes to return to Wrangell to drum up more interest in Native issues among her peers.
"Hopefully, the conference will motivate them and then help them develop action plans for when they go back to their towns," Flores said.
The students spent Saturday and Sunday at the SAGA Eagle Valley Center, near 25 mile Glacier Highway. SAGA, the Southeast Alaska Guidance Association, operates youth crews in service projects statewide, and runs an adventure-based training course.
The Native youths worked as a team on a challenge course and completed a high-ropes course to build self-esteem as individuals, said center director David Troup.
"This was a really strong group; they worked really well together," he said.
As with the UNITY activities, the theme of the weekend at the Eagle Valley Center was leadership.
"We try to have a variety of activities focusing on leadership styles," Troup said. "Part of what we do out here is building self-reliance and self-esteem."
With self-esteem, the youths can return to their communities and have a positive impact on their peers, Troup said.
Participants in the program, mostly high school students, were from Yakutat, Kake, Craig, Juneau, Hoonah and Wrangell. Most of the students are THRHA housing residents, which means their households earn 80 percent below the median income. Students who weren't from THRHA housing were recommended by their tribal councils.
Christine Schmid can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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