Iditarod Champ Keeps Youth Leadership and Suicide Prevention Program Alive

Photo by Heather Aronno. John Baker and Marie Greene

The future of a youth leadership and suicide prevention program is secure after a grant of $1.25 million was donated by the Teck Mining Company. The donation was made in the name of Iditarod Champion John Baker. In addition to his own contributions to the curriculum, Baker has friends and family members involved with the program. He says he believes that bringing focus to the suicide issue in rural communities is important.

“Well, anytime there’s any suicide then it’s going to be, and should be, an issue that we all need to face, so big or small, we need to face it as directly as we can.”

The Nortwest Arctic Borough School District went from having one of the highest suicide rates in Alaska to zero suicides in the last school year. Michelle Woods,Youth Leaders Program Coordinator, says the program was in danger of closing after federal funding for it ended last year.

“We had about one more year left of minimal funding that they had given us last year. So the fact that we’re funded for five years, that means we’re alive, our kids are  going to continue saving lives out there. It’s huge. Without it, we’d be dead in the water, literally.”

Woods credits the program’s success to the focus on training youth instead of adults. Due to the problems of retaining teachers in the bush, the program coordinators decided to focus their resources on people who would stick around. Woods says now youth who have gone through the training can mentor younger members of the community.

“So what we’ve done is we’ve taken that program and then we’ve expanded it to include youth leadership, with a very strong cultural component, one that’s appropriate for the Alaska Native culture.”

The Teck John Baker Youth Leaders Program is based out of the Northwest Arctic Borough School District. The new grant will be doled out over the next five years.

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