Blogging from Alternative Spring Break in Alaska

March 22, 2010
By Chris Richter
Leah watches her father, Owen James, perform a traditional Tlingit dance. (Photograph by Susannah Brinkley)

Leah watches her father, Owen James, perform a traditional Tlingit dance. (Photograph by Susannah Brinkley)

Today is the final blog post by NC State magazine intern Susannah Brinkley. A junior in the College of Design, she blogged for us from her Alternative Spring Break (ASB) trip to Hoonah, Alaska. ASB provides students a chance to take a vacation and complete service projects with other students. In Hoonah, Susannah’s team worked in local schools, with the Head Start and Boys & Girls Club programs, and with the Senior Center and the Hoonah Indian Association. They also learned about the Tlingit Indians’ culture, customs and language. You can see Susannah’s photos here, read all her posts here and check out the blogs of her teammates and other NC State students on ASB here. Technician wrote about ASB in this morning’s edition.

It’s been an exhausting last few days, filled with smiles and tears as the children in the local schools prepared for spring break and as we got ready to end ours and head home. Thursday was the last day at Head Start, which ended a day earlier than the public schools. Two of my teammates and I helped the teachers with a walk to the beach. We found all kinds of things: baby crabs, moon snail eggs, starfish and barnacles. The amount of appreciation for nature in Alaska amazes me. One of the little girls kindly reminded me not to step on the barnacles. I asked her why, and her matter-of-fact response was, “They are living things!” I’m not sure that I was that environmentally aware when I was three years old!

A couple of the kids started calling me and my teammates “teacher,” a sign that we were beginning to gain their respect. In fact, they were fighting over us. One child, Jozlyn, got upset that another child, Leah, wanted me to take her picture and not Jozlyn’s. Crying, Jozlyn yelled, “Don’t stand close to Teacher because I am close to Teacher!” It has been really meaningful to see these kids get attached, but it only made the goodbyes harder. The kids didn’t seem to understand that we’d probably never see them again, which was harder on us. We blinked back tears as we hugged the “wee babes” goodbye.After Head Start, I made my way to the 5th/6th grade class. A lot of the classes are multi-grade so the school doesn’t have to hire as many teachers. The teacher had asked a few of us to give presentations about what we’re studying because, as he put it, he wanted them to learn “something he couldn’t teach them.” I spoke about graphic design, teaching the kids about fonts and printing processes. They were all fascinated. One of the students, Kayla, found me afterward. She told me that, after my talk, she wanted to be a graphic designer when she grew up. That warmed my heart. We came here to give back, and we are aware that we won’t see the effects right away, or even at all, so it was rewarding to hear that I’d made a small difference. Kayla and I exchanged addresses. It will be a lot of fun to have a 6th grade pen pal! She promised to send me artwork, and I promised to send her letters.

After class, Gayle, one of the high school students took us shopping. There isn’t much to buy that’s touristy — it’s off season. The tourists will come in the  summertime. Gayle showed us the Trading Post, which is the prime grocery store in town. The prices are exorbitant! It’s $15 for large packs of multiple-ply toilet paper. One of my teammates described Hoonah as a “food desert,” because the Trading Post has a monopoly so they can charge whatever they want. Not to mention fresh food has to travel a long way to get there. Renee, the school’s guidance counselor, told us she was excited that bananas were on sale for $2. Each! Next to the Trading Post is the island’s sole gas pump. That’s pricy too!

We found a few souvenirs, and headed to the Boys & Girls Club, where we played Wii and ping pong with some of the kids. They really get the chance to go wild there and run around as much as they want. The kids seem to be really needy. After all, the reason they’re there is because their parents work all day and so they need a little extra attention. While we were shopping and playing with the Boys & Girls Club kids, several members of our team were crabbing with one of the teachers. They caught a bunch of dungeness crab, and one Alaskan king crab, which they cooked. We chowed down when we got home. I’d never had crab straight out of the shell before, let alone crab that was so fresh! Kimberly, our team member from Maryland, showed us how it was done. It was complicated, but delicious!

Then was Round 2 of Tlingit class. We learned words and phrases for “sweetheart” and “I love you.” The language is kind of throaty and harsh sounding, but in its own way it’s really beautiful. We were almost done, when Emmie, another teammate, figured out she was allergic to crab. Thankfully, it was a mild reaction. She didn’t break out in hives and her throat didn’t close up. She got it all out of her system, and then we took her home and tucked her in bed.

One man down, we did reflection anyway. Called “Cross the Line,” we did an exercise showing us the similarities and differences in our personalities and backgrounds. It was really amazing, but also really emotional and sparked a lot of discussion within the group.

On Friday, we had a shorter day. We started off with breakfast at a local coffee house called Grandma Nina’s. Homemade muffins and real, not instant, coffee. It’s the little things you appreciate here! I sat in on the high school’s Health & English class (another combined class) where the kids debated about HIV/AIDS. After class, we chowed down on cafeteria food: cornbread and chile. It’s amazing that, even in Alaska, cafeteria food smells and tastes the same as it did at my elementary school in North Carolina!

After lunch, I headed back to 5th/6th grade with Emmie (who was feeling much better). We were supposed to discuss photography with the kids, but they were more interested in playing Old Maid. Emmie and I quickly discovered that the kids always drew from the same spot in our hands, so we won easily. It’s not  cheating if you have a strategy, right?

When the day was over, I headed back to the bunkhouse with a few others. We straightened up the place to prepare for the potluck dinner that was being held in our honor. I whipped up a birthday cake for our team member Jeff, whose birthday was Friday; Moto, a Japanese man who came to Hoonah to meet us, whose birthday is Tuesday; and for myself, whose birthday was last Friday, though they made me add my name at the last minute.

The community rolled in with all kinds of good stuff and weird stuff. Potato salad, pies, seal, octopus, soapberries. We’ve definitely had our fair share of interesting foods here. They thanked us with traditional Tlingit song and dance, which was really beautiful. The dancers wore their tribal regalia, which was all made from animals — weasels, seals, beavers, and even bear. They each wore an embroidered blanket and some had on headdresses and moccasins. At the end, they let us join them in dancing to the final song. Apparently men and women have separate dances, and it is bad luck to dance the other sex’s part.

Before they filed out, they presented three of our members with bear claw necklaces, which is an extremely high and rare honor of gratitude. We felt really special, and it was nice to feel like we’d made an impact. We gave gifts of NC State T-shirts, hats, wind chimes and night lights. One of the Elders taught us that the Tlingit word for wolf is “gooch,” and the wolf is highly respected.

After they left, we did our final reflection. We wove yarn across a circle, creating a web in between our team, showing how connected we became this week. I felt really lucky to have been paired with such an amazing team. I have 13 new friends to come home to, and none of them is in the College of Design or in Student Media, so it will be nice to branch out for once. I can’t wait to continue our relationships!

Saturday morning, we cleaned out the bunkhouse and went over to the airport, which was, in fact, the tiniest airport I’d ever seen. It was more like a house with a large parking lot. It took three puddle-jumpers to get us to Juneau on 20-minute flights. I looked out my window for whales in the ocean, but to no avail. I guess I’ll have to come back to see them!

We barely made it to Juneau on time before our flight to Seattle, but we made it. In Seattle we had a 7-hour layover. Everyone napped on the floor, and by the time we made it through Detroit and back to Raleigh, everyone was exhausted and smelly.

So it’s over, but it’s not. Yes, I’m here, back in Raleigh and classes start back tomorrow (unfortunately). But at the same time, it’s the beginning of something new for all of us. The beginning of 13 new friendships. The beginning of a life positively affected by our trip to Hoonah. The beginning of a life of service. It’s too early to tell if this trip was life-changing, but I have a hunch that it will be. I am truly privileged to have gotten this opportunity, and I wouldn’t take it back for anything. In fact, I hope to participate in ASB again next year, and potentially make it back to Hoonah sometime in my life. I can’t speak for everyone on my team, but I know that I learned so much this week. I learned about Alaska, Native Americans, the Hoonah community, education, children, privilege, NC State, my teammates. And, of course, myself and my ability to function as both a teammate and a leader. In all, it’s been a week to remember. I’ll never forget this experience.

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