Focusing on child health and intergenerational health concerns, the Kodiak Area Native Association hosted the second annual Healthy Kodiak event at the Afognak Center on  Wednesday. This year’s theme was “Cultivating Resiliency Across Our Generations.”

The event drew dozens of participants from Kodiak and nearby Native villages. Presentation topics included children’s health, grandparents raising their grandchildren, mental health first aid, transitioning seniors and elders, and overcoming historical trauma.

Other activities included interactive cultural activities such as salve making and trauma-informed yoga, and informational booths on various health-related organizations and services in Kodiak. 

Dr. Matthew Hirschfeld, medical director of Maternal Child Health Services at the Alaska Native Medical Center in Anchorage, spoke about the importance of child health and the adverse impact negative childhood events can have on health. 

In Alaska, he said, half of all children go through at least one adverse childhood experience, which may include absent parents, exposure to drugs, or threats of physical violence. According to a study conducted by the U.S. Center for Disease Control, Alaska’s ACE rate is higher than in other states.

Hirschfeld said half of ACEs occur before the age of 3. ACEs have a negative effect on future employment prospects, and eliminating ACEs would save the state $90 million, Hirschfeld said.

“We’ve all been reading about how the government is not doing so well in Alaska. In my opinion, this should be what they’re focused on, not so much on cutting programs. They should really be investing in the future of Alaska because we’ll be saving lots of money over time,” Hirschfeld said.

A panel led by KANA behavioral health consultant Catherine Galindo focused on grandparents raising their grandchildren. 

More than 12,000 children in Alaska live with grandparents, representing almost 7% of Alaska children. Almost 7,000 grandparents raise their grandchildren in the state. Of those, 42% are American Indian or Alaska Native, according to figures collected in 2017 by Grandfamilies.org

According to Galindo, challenges faced by grandparents and grandchildren may include depression, social isolation, poverty and increased stress.

“We know children take a lot of energy. When all of a sudden you’re raising your grandchildren, that’s a big change in expectations,” she said. “You might see higher levels of emotional or behavioral issues.”

The panel featured Andrea Abena, Frieda Panamaroff and Sabrina Christiansen, who raise their grandchildren in the Kodiak region.

Abena, who has lived in Kodiak for more than 20 years, said she has been raising her two grandchildren for almost two years.

“It’s been a big impact on my life,” Abena said. “Now I can’t just go and do something. I have to find a babysitter, or they go with me.”

She said the transition has affected her grandchildren, too. Her grandson has been in occupational therapy since she began taking care of him.

“I don’t know what happened in his home, before,” she said.

Panamaroff, who lives in Larsen Bay, has been caring for her granddaughter for nine years. Because Larsen Bay’s school closed in 2018, after enrollment dropped to five students, she has also taken charge of her granddaughter’s homeschooling. 

Christiansen, who lives in Kodiak, said she has been caring for her granddaughter since November.

“I was trying to move out of Kodiak for a while,” Christiansen said. But six months after leaving, she received a call asking her to return to Kodiak and care for her 6-month-old granddaughter. “I didn’t have anything for a baby — cribs, clothes, anything.”

Christiansen said her granddaughter’s parents are struggling with addiction. 

“Hopefully in time and with the resources that her parents can have, she will be able to go home. For now she’s happy, she’s healthy, she loves everybody. It’s been actually really wonderful,” Christiansen said. “She’s been great for me in different ways that I never thought possible.”

Christiansen said she has received much-needed support from the community.

“The support I have gotten from my family and the community has been overwhelmingly awesome,” she said. “There isn’t anything on the negative side. Kodiak is great for that.”

Margaret Roberts, a member of the KANA board of directors, thanked the panelists for sharing their experiences.

“On Kodiak Island, our Native communities have been caring for families for thousands and thousands of years. We may be going through a crisis and things that we didn’t have thousands of years ago, but it’s great that everybody is doing their best to keep the families together when they can,” she said, noting that addiction has posed a difficult challenge for the community.

“When it comes to our children, we’ll always love them and nurture them and come together and support them any way that we can to keep them together,” she said. “There’s nothing that breaks your heart more than listening to your grandchildren say ‘Where is my mom? Where is my dad?’”

Following the panel, community partners discussed support mechanisms available for grandparents and caregivers who are caring for young children.

KANA will begin hosting a support group for grandparents raising grandchildren later this month. The group will meet every other week, and the first session will take place Thursday, Sept. 12. Participation is available by referral. Interested individuals can call Fawn Chya at 907-486-9812.

The Kodiak Summit Community Coalition is offering a four-part webinar series on Kinship Care, for anyone who is caring for young children who are separated from their parents because of drug or alcohol addiction. 

The training is supported by the Annie E. Casey Foundation and will be accompanied by facilitated discussions. It will take place at the Marian Center between 6:30-8:30 every Monday in September. Attendance is free and childcare is available. Interested individuals can call Heather Presse for more information at 907-512-6762.

Healthy Kodiak was free and open to all members of the public, but addressed many topics specific to the Kodiak Native community. The event began with a lamp-lighting ceremony, led by Roberts.

“The burning lamp of the Native people of Kodiak provided light and heat to prehistoric Alutiiq households for millennia. Hand-carved from stone and filled with oil rendered from sea mammal blubber, oil lamps were lit with a wick of twisted grass,” Roberts said. “Many of these ancient spiritual traditions were transformed by Russian colonization. But today … I know you will do your best to light the way wherever you go, to always be healthy and pass that on for generations and generations.”

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