By M.C. Kauffman
August 05, 2005
Alvarez wonders if he will be leaving Ketchikan better than when he began. Has he strengthened efforts to eliminate and alleviate poverty? Alvarez said, "I'd like to think so, but I suppose the hungry are just as hungry as I leave." He said, "Yet I have begun something that I believe will, with time, decrease the poverty of lost promise in the youth of this community - and for me the poverty of 'no see ums' is the greatest lack any and every community faces."
Alvarez serves in AmeriCorps' VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) program which is a thirty-year-old federal program begun by President Lyndon Johnson. The program is geared toward eliminating poverty in our nation by supporting non-profit and other social service agencies fighting the war against hunger, lack of education, and, generally speaking, all disenfranchisement. As a VISTA, Alvarez said his job was to help to recruit and train volunteers, and to assist those agencies attempting to assist the public at large. "Never heard of my organization or me? Not surprising, as it seems to me most of your community hasn't. Let's not get off on a bad foot, I had never heard of Ketchikan before I moved here last August, " said Alvarez.
Considering his year of service in Ketchikan, Alvarez said, "I feel I've made an impact as a VISTA, but I'm aware that I can't change the world by myself - and neither can AmeriCorps alone. I've helped people through my program, and I leave VISTAs here to finish work I began. And I leave the youth and young adults of Ketchikan in a more empowered place than when I arrived."
Alvarez began his work in Ketchikan a year ago at SERRC's local Adult Education Center. He worked as an English as a Second Language instructor, an Adult Basic Education instructor, and a test proctor for the General Educational Development (GED) test. Alvarez administered the test at the local center, as well as at the Ketchikan Corrections Facility. Alvarez said, "I helped over thirty folks earn their GED diploma in my short time working for the Ketchikan Adult Education Center."
In recruiting volunteers Alvarez said, "I failed miserably. I attempted to recruit a test proctor for the GED tests for over three months before taking the post myself because finding an unpaid volunteer to staff the position seemed impossible." He said the difficulty with finding a volunteer was because the test proctor had to have a four-year college degree and several people interested in the position were denied. He said, "Those qualified individuals not eliminated from consideration refused once they learned of the proctor's voluntary unpaid status." Surprised he said, "I even advertised the position in local church newsletters, still to only be called by parties inquiring of payment for services rendered."
He described this as a negative start for him. Alvarez said, "But there was a bright spot for me working at the Adult Ed Center. I bonded with most if not all of my students, especially the students under the age of 18." He said most of his students, in fact, were in this age group. "Often I asked them why they chose to earn their GED rather than to stay in school. The common answer was that school wasn't for them," said Alvarez. He said, "Naturally I'd ask them what they planned to do after earning their diploma, always steering them toward college when I could. More often than not, the student would respond with something like, "getting out of Ketchikan," usually to go straight to work - as most thought they were either ineligible for college because they earned their GED or that they wouldn't succeed in higher education."
Alvarez said he wondered why the potential of these young folks was being wasted, and why they thought they couldn't go to college. He said, "Who had told them a GED was only a "Good Enough Diploma"? These students were some of the most brilliant people I have met in Ketchikan, and I mean that sincerely." He said he taught a section of English 100 and 101 at the University of Arizona, and some of the essays he received at the Adult Ed Center in Ketchikan were as good, if not better, than the students he had in college. "Something was going on, and I wasn't sure who to blame, or if blame was in order. I'll admit I posited most of the blame on the community that refused to volunteer the time to serve these overlooked folks," said Alvarez.
Shortly after arriving in Ketchikan in 2004 to serve as a VISTA, Alvarez said a local young man had just died from a drug overdose. Alvarez said, "New as I was to the community, and to Alaska for that matter, I had no idea of the misuse of prescription drugs local youth abused to get high." He continued, "This is not to say I never knew the negative effects of drugs - my little sister wasted away to 75-pounds and nearly died from crystal meth two-years ago." Alvarez said, "I have seen drugs, and I know that like not furthering one's education, drugs also destroy the potential of youth. The sorrow of the entire community filled me after the event, and like most everyone else, I was left wondering (again) who to blame, or if blame was in order, and if I should blame the community for this tragedy as well."
Then in December of 2004, Alvarez said local resident Yeda Hicks, former Youth Counselor for Saxman and Roberta McCreary, a concerned local citizen, both working under the support of the Revilla Island Prevention Coalition, organized a workshop titled "Getting Outside the Box" to hear what local youth felt about the death of their peer and youth in their community, in general. He said the meeting brought youth from various segments of the community together, literally to the center of the table at the Health Department. "Adults sat at the periphery of the room, listening to the youth speak and not lecturing nor offering solutions. I was fortunate enough to sit at the table.," said Alvarez.
Alvarez named various groups of labeled youth who attended the meeting as the Preppies, Stoners, Goths, KTOs (Ketchikan Town Outlaws), Wannabes, and "No See Ums". He said the "No See Ums" term was coined by Hicks and referred to those "lost" teens who are either consciously or unconsciously overlooked by the community. Students from Kayhi and Revilla attended the workshop and Alvarez said a couple of the youth students from the Adult Education center working toward their GED diplomas attended. Some youth came from youth treatment centers, some straight from sports practice. All youth in attendance agreed unanimously that they wanted no more youth dying from the misuses of alcohol and drugs said Alvarez. How to accomplish this? Alvarez said, "Some said parents could do a better job, in particular, that they could be more involved in the lives of their teenage children." He said one youth attending put it as, "being more involved, not just when your kids are small, but when they need you." As teens, Alvarez said they felt they needed their parents more than ever as they evolved into young adults. Some said teens need a "safe place to loiter". Others said activities of interest to teens were needed in the community. Alvarez said, "Naturally, the proverbial, 'there's nothing to do in Ketchikan' took the fore." He said the veracity of these teens was the first step to the realization of the non-profit that he's currently working for as he finishes his VISTA term.
Talking about the newly formed corporation and its mission, Alvarez said, "Through the diligent work of Roberta McCreary, the Revilla Island Prevention Coalition, Tyrell Rettke, his fellow Ketchikan VISTAs Sara Todd, Alli Kitchner, Tracy Arce, Jessica Reveri, and himself, and most importantly youth from the community, including the "no see ums," Ketchikan Youth Initiatives, the newly formed 501(c)3 corporation formed with the forceful mission of Empowering the community by fostering and funding youth and young adult initiatives designed to create a constructive environment."
Describing KYI, he said the board of Ketchikan Youth Initiatives (KYI) is composed of seven adults and four youth. "The youth give voice to the issues youth face, but also are instrumental in the running of the organization," said Alvarez. KYI began with the input of youth from the Outside the Box workshop, and is geared to and focused on youth. Alvarez said "The organization gathered steam with Ty's [Rettke] entrance after he posted a comment on SitNews speaking for the need of alternative sports in Ketchikan." After meetings with Rettke, Alvarez said we learned paintball was a popular sport in Ketchikan, and one that bridged the gulf between "good" and "bad" youth. He said from the Outside the Box workshop, the youth said that any future programs begun should have some "ownership" by youth. Ketchikan Youth Initiatives is designed so that the youth have the ownership of their activities, including paintball, said Alvarez. "KYI strives to assist in the creation of healthy, youth and young adult-led activities for Ketchikan's youth participants. The direct results from this support building confidence, communication and leadership skills, and a revelation to the community and its leaders of tomorrow of the unlimited potential of youth making positive choices," said Alvarez.
The Ketchikan Hot Shots Paintball League sponsored by KYI is on the verge of opening for business said Alvarez. "Through the generous donations of the Revilla Island Prevention Coalition and of the Cape Fox Corporation, a parcel of land is being permitted for use on Revilla Road to build a paintball park. Local youth and young adult volunteers will man the park, and its proceeds will go to keep the park running and also funding other future youth initiatives, such as a skate park or ATV course," said Alvarez.
He said, "The project is an immense one for anyone to take on, youth or adult. " KYI gives full-reign to the youth, while its adult members mentor them in the decision-making and building processes he said. "The project is huge, but members of the community thus far have been supportive. And in watching this develop, I realize my initial understanding of this community not caring was ill founded and misguided." said Alvarez.
A year after his arrival Alvarez said he's learned, "This community does care about its youth and future, and has proven itself to me by eagerly supporting KYI thus far."
Steven Alvarez leaves Ketchikan today. He will be remembered for his dedicated service and remembered by the many whose lives he has touched over his year of service in Ketchikan.
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