If Alaska Native youth believe that the odds are against them, they're right.
It's tough to hope for a good job when you live in a place where unemployment runs anywhere from 55- to 75 percent; where it's impossible to ignore the poverty and substance abuse around you. Trading village life for the city is no panacea either, if you don't have the education and other skills necessary to earn a living wage.
Cook Inlet Tribal Council, along with the Alaska Native Coalition on Employment and Training, and an infusion of $32 million over the next five years from the U.S. Department of Labor, intends to better those odds for young Native Alaskans.
The Youth Opportunity Program provides the framework for the kind of hands-on help that makes the difference to a young person struggling to understand why school is important or who wants to learn skills that translate to a living wage whether in the village or in the city.
A community member from each of 40 rural Alaska Native villages will act as a youth development specialist and mentor for students ages 14 through 21. The specialists will coordinate opportunities for the young people to pursue vocational education, apprenticeships or college, whatever their interests and skills may be. A high-school dropout, for example, could get help to obtain a general equivalency diploma and then further education.
''Our goal is to enroll at least 100 youth by Sept. 30,'' says M.J. Longley, director of the Youth Opportunity Program. ''Our target for the next eight months is 800.'' The program is voluntary, and those under 18 must have their parents' permission.
The Youth Opportunity Program in concert with its partners, the Bethel Alternative Boarding School, the Alaska Military Youth Academy, the Youth Enrichment Program, Big Brothers/Big Sisters and the Job Corps, will provide Alaska Native young people with more than hope for a good future. They can provide the tools to get them there -- and that promises to strengthen families and communities throughout the state.
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