At a vigil for Anchorage’s homeless youth, a tale of how a teen found hope

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Ryna Lealai, a youth advocate at Covenant House Alaska, tells her story at a Thursday, Nov. 16, 2023 candlelight vigil in downtown Anchorage. (Rhonda McBride/KNBA)

As most of Anchorage hunkers down at home from the deep snow and cold, hundreds are still without shelter. And some of those struggling to find their way are teenagers.

Covenant House held a candlelight vigil in downtown Anchorage on Thursday night to raise awareness about this vulnerable group of young people.

Ryna Lealai, a youth advocate at Covenant House Alaska, told the story about the night she sought help from the shelter at the age of 17.

It was a cold November night, when Ryna decided to leave her abusive family in Mountain View. There was snow on the ground, yet she left with only the clothes she had on – a pair of shorts, long socks and a heavy sweater.

“As cold as it was, I didn’t stop walking,” she said. “Because walking was the only thing that was keeping me warm.”

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A crowd at the vigil listened as Lealai talked about being a 17-year-old in need of not just a place to live, but love and encouragement. (Rhonda McBride/KNBA)

As exhausted as she was from the constant threat of violence at home, she couldn’t sleep as she shivered under a tree in Anchorage’s Town Square Park.

“I’m sitting there in my almost dry spot. My shorts getting wet. I’m getting even more cold, because my feet are already cold,” Ryna said. “I’m just like, I could die from hypothermia.”

Ryna said she hugged herself against the tree.

“And I was praying. I was praying real hard. I don’t know what I need right now, but I need something,” she said.

That something turned out to be an elderly Native man. But when he first approached her, she wasn’t so sure. Although he had a nice black leather coat with a fur on the hood, she could tell he was homeless. His hands and face looked rough and red, like he had been out in the cold for hours.

“I’m not gonna lie to you,” she said, sizing up the man. “That kinda weather, you don’t just go strolling for a couple of hours.”

The man asked her age and clicked his tongue when she answered and scolded her for being out alone at that hour. He offered to take her to Covenant House. It was a place she hadn’t heard of before, but she decided to follow him anyway.

“Somehow, that walk, it was like hope was there. And that was enough for me to keep me following this sketchy man, wherever he’s going,” Lealai said.

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Today, Lealai is raising a son in a stable home. She credits an Alaska Native man who led her to Covenant House with saving her life. (Rhonda McBride/KNBA)

When they arrived at Covenant House, the man shooed her through the door with a wave of his hands. Later, when she turned around to look for him, he was gone.

“I’m still trying to find that man,” Lealai said. “If I do that, and I find the man that led me here, I would cry. I would thank him a million times. I would have coffee with him. I would pay for anything.”

“I just want to find that man. Like he was my angel. That was a pivotal moment,” she said.

Ryna stayed at Covenant House for about three months. At first, she slept lots and lots, something she couldn’t do in a violent home. But at Covenant House, she was able to let her guard down.

“It was like the survival mode was drained from my body,” she said. “This was the first time in my life where I could just be a kid.”

Change didn’t come at once. Over the next four years, she said she would jump from couch to couch, program to program. But today she is raising a son, in a stable home — free of the violence she experienced growing up. She says her job at Covenant House is a part of that, to help others heal and find their way.

Ryna says a lot of what she does is simply listen and offer encouragement, which goes a long way.

“Sometimes it weighs, it weighs on them really heavy thinking about their past, thinking about now. What is their future?” she said.

Lealai said she reminds them that they are alive today, and that’s what’s important.

“You’re good today. You’re strong today. Worry about that,” she said. “Do what you can today. You’re enough today.”

Ryna says she’s worked at Covenant House long enough to know that some kids don’t make it through the winter.

During her speech at this year’s candlelight vigil, she read a poem dedicated to one of those young women who died at a camp on 3rd Avenue earlier this year.

As for that Native man in the nice leather coat, Lealai wonders to this day if he was real, or perhaps an angel watching out. But one thing she knows for sure: he saved her life.

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