Pen pal program encourages Alaska Native youth and elders to share stories between generations

Jenna Larson and other APIA program coordinators are hoping to use this pen pal project to prevent unhealthy habits from forming, while fostering cultural knowledge and growth. (Image courtesy of Dustin Newman)

Last month, the Aleutian Pribilof Islands Association launched a pen pal program for Alaska Native youth and elders in the region.

It’s meant to create a space — amidst the coronavirus pandemic — where different generations of Alaska Natives can safely connect, according to APIA Youth Services coordinator Jenna Larson.

“We want to see the youth learning from the elders, and the elders passing on their knowledge and their favorite things about their culture,” Larson said.

Sharing culture and gathering together is an important part of staying healthy — mentally, physically, and spiritually, she added. And now, because people haven’t been able to gather as much due to public health guidelines meant to limit the spread of the virus, Larson and other APIA program coordinators hope to use this letter writing project to prevent unhealthy habits from forming, while fostering cultural knowledge and growth. She hopes it will help with the isolation that many may be feeling during the pandemic.

“When we incorporate culture, when we learn from our elders and gain the wisdom that they have, it works to prevent that feeling of loneliness that can contribute to feeling depressed, that can contribute to substance abuse,” she said.

Any Alaska Native youth or elders can participate, but APIA is hoping to specifically connect Alaska Native youth from the Aleutians and Pribilofs with elders who are also from the region.

People can participate via email or through handwritten letters or cards, according to Larson. APIA has some letter templates younger kids can use. For the older youth, Larson suggested they build a relationship with their elder pen pal, then ask them to share a story.

She said she hopes this experience will be memorable for everyone involved and will allow youth to find healing and security through cultural storytelling.

While they’ve received a lot of interest from youth who want to participate, program coordinators are in need of elders to connect them with, and they encourage anyone interested to reach out.

For more information, visit APIA’s website or email Jenna Larson.

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