It is difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle in Alaska in the face of extreme weather conditions, fragile economies, and overwhelming social pressures that continually impact families and communities. It can further be disheartening to recognize that conditions across rural Alaska persist with high levels of addiction, violence, suicide, unemployment, and lower quality education compared to other states.
In fact, substance abuse and other addictions across Alaska’s population are at an all-time high, which contributes significantly to our communities’ challenges. Ranked No. 1 by the nationwide Violence Policy Center in 2016, “Alaska is considered the deadliest state for women,” with a staggering 59% of women experiencing violence in their lives (USA Today, 2019). Alaska is also second in the nation as having one of the highest suicide rates (just under Montana), double the national average (Amer. Fdtn. for Suicide Prevention, 2017). Alaska also has the highest unemployment rate per capita at 6.5 in 2019, higher than Washington DC and double the national average (Bureau of Labor Statistics, 2019). And sadly, Alaska ranks 47th in the nation for our quality of education (U.S. News and World Report, 2019).
Because Kodiak Island and other Alaska rural communities are geographically dispersed and isolated, conditions are more severe. Equally challenging given our small populations, is how our municipal, social service, and healthcare systems are built only to maintain the status quo…or to decline with shrinking state budgets. Furthermore, services are generally focused on specialized care—segmented rather than through a holistic approach essential for long-term recovery.
To reverse these trends across rural Alaska, we must seek innovative approaches and engage as a community to support solutions. One such solution is growing at the St. Herman Theological Seminary to expand their curriculum offerings and integrate applied service learning opportunities. Like other faith-based service centers, such as Providence Health & Services of Alaska, the Seminary intends to achieve its goals to benefit the wider community. By building partnerships with local community members and other service providers, they intend to train the next generation of counselors.
Rather than use the traditional “banking” method of education — depositing knowledge into student minds disconnected from complex real-world settings — the Seminary will provide applied knowledge education, which is inherently better able to achieve student success. Similar to the methods used at the Julliard School of Music or within the U.S. Navy Seals, students will be taught through challenge-based learning. In essence, student apprentices will discover firsthand how hard it is to meet the challenge, what implications there are for both the individual and the community if not met, and how to address the challenge collectively and holistically.
Students will become certified Participant-Facilitators of The Freedom Challenge, a thoroughly Orthodox recovery ministry for all types of addictions (e.g., drugs, alcohol, food, pornography, cell phones, etc.). The Freedom Challenge (originally developed as The St. Dimitrie Program) has a long track record of success in Romania and is led by its founder, Floyd Franz.
Serving as the Challenge Team leader, Floyd Franz is a licensed professional addiction counsellor originally from Wichita, Kansas. Franz sought a place to focus his work on addiction recovery, and chose Romania back in 1989. Now, Franz is dedicating the next two years to grow a similar program based in Kodiak to serve rural Alaska, and elsewhere. After 20 years in Romania, and going countrywide successfully, Franz looked for an appropriate next location to establish a U.S. basecamp, training minister counselors to provide holistic addiction recovery treatment. Rural Alaska and its tribal community dynamics are similar to the environment that Franz found in Romania 20 years ago.
To assist with the transition, retired Silicon Valley businessman and parishioner Vic Downing will serve as Transition Team Leader. Downing is tasked by Archbishop David (Mahaffey) to oversee the fundraising, campus renovations, and infrastructure development efforts. Archbishop David, based in Anchorage at the St. Innocent Cathedral Diocese of Alaska for the Orthodox Church of America, states, “By the mercies of God, Alaska will actually reverse these negative trends. Good news is on the way!”
The Seminary team is now engaged in fundraising to help achieve this vision and grow the capacity of the St. Herman Theological Seminary to be self-sustaining. At its core, the approach is simple. Train journeymen who can work with and support individuals and communities to address our addiction crises.
Since 1974, Kodiak’s Seminary has trained students and supported community members through their classrooms, archives, dormitories, and clergy housing. The Seminary prepares students to become readers, deacons, or priests within the Russian Orthodox Church.
As Kodiak’s oldest organization (founded in 1794), the Russian Orthodox Church has held substantial property around the Kodiak archipelago. In fact, the Church owned the land stretching from the Holy Resurrection Russian Orthodox Church to beyond the Seminary. Across the street from the main Seminary campus, are three structures (411, 413 and 414 Mission Road), built in the 1940s and 1950s before the Kodiak Island Borough was established. Nestled at the base of the hill below the Kodiak Senior Center, adjacent to the Kodiak Mortuary and the Alutiiq Museum, these three structures stand on a .73 acre sliver of land at the corner of Erskine Avenue and Mission Road. The 411 Mission Road building was leased as Kodiak’s mortuary until moving to the new mortuary building across the street at 303 Erskine Avenue. The 414 Mission Road structure served as apartments during its long life. Between these two dilapidated structures, is a house where V. Rev. John Dunlop (Dean and Professor of Liturgics and Theology) and his family live at 413 Mission Road.
In 1961, the Orthodox Church made Mission Road possible by granting a no-cost easement of 6.2 acres to the township-borough—in essence separating these three structures from the main Seminary campus However, these structures remain part of the overall St. Herman Theological Seminary with limited additional footprint to accommodate expansion.
After major renovation, the 411 and 413 Mission Road facilities will provide: 1) an Addiction Recovery Training Basecamp (411), and 2) a Family, Marriage and Early Childhood Education Basecamp (413). Building renovation plans are in development to ensure sufficient infrastructure for student training, out-patient services, group meetings, and a 24 hour hotline for counseling support, transforming campus offerings to benefit the wider Kodiak Archipelago. The Kodiak community can learn more at www.sthermanseminary.org or by connecting with Transition Team Leader Vic Downing.