Bethel was a great place to be a kid in the 1950s and 1960s. No, we weren’t signed up for ballet or piano lessons or chauffeured to soccer. But we were free to wander through willows looking for robins’ nests. Free to ramble over the tundra picking berries. Free to head out in the morning with a slingshot, a swiped butter knife for telling stories in the mud, a cigar box full of marbles – and the whole day ahead.

yuut1Though much has changed, much is the same. There’s still fishing, hunting and berry picking to satisfy even the most dedicated hunter-gatherer; subsistence activities permeate everyday life. The natural beauty of river and tundra, and snowmobiling, boating and sandbar picnics provide pure pleasure. Bethel is small enough that you can get involved in the community and feel the satisfaction of knowing you’ve made a difference and friends for life.

True, the gritty little city on the banks of the Kuskokwim River in southwestern Alaska is not for everyone. Hang out at the Bethel Airport any day and you’ll spot somebody getting off the jet with a “what did I get myself into?” look on their face. Chances are, they’ve been lured from their homes in Anchorage or Texas or Washington by wages that are high compared to those in the Lower 48.

What did they get themselves into? You can’t drive to this remote, sparsely populated area. Winters are cold and mainly dark and stretch on like a migraine. Summer days are long but come with swarms of insects out for blood, and the season flits by faster than you can say “cost of living allowance.” Evidence of alcohol abuse is everywhere.

Many of the newcomers stumbling off the plane will keep their high-paying jobs just long enough to discover how much heating oil costs, leaving employers the bill for relocation expenses and positions still vacant. Which begs the question: Why not hire somebody who already lives here?

That’s the premise behind Yuut Elitnaurviat, the People’s Learning Center.

Yuut’s programs are designed to fit the needs of people who live in the Yukon-Kuskokwim Delta. Someone who wants to obtain journeyman level in carpentry, plumbing or electricity can now do so right there. Yuut’s healthcare training program for personal care assistants and certified nursing assistants means not only a satisfying career, but also desperately needed Alaska Native health care providers. High school students can study medical terminology. Through Bethel Alternative Boarding School, which will be housed on the 10-acre Yuut campus beginning in 2007, dropouts get a second chance to obtain both a high school diploma and vocational training.

YuutJoseph “Nick” Minock, 31, from Pilot Station, is a construction student who worked as a carpenter before taking classes at Yuut. “We went through the books and did hands-on training outside,” he says. “We made a small building. I learned the names of beams, different types of windows. They helped me out a lot.”

Programs Manager Tiffany Tony has worked for Yuut since it was incorporated as a nonprofit in 2002. “We want somebody who lives in Bethel by choice, ” she says, “somebody who wants to stay in Bethel, who wants to have the training to live comfortably and not in poverty.”

In an area where almost half of high school students drop out and a quarter of the population lives in poverty, the need for Yuut Elitnaurviat is obvious. A fat paycheck beats public assistance any day.

With education and proper credentials, Yu’pik Eskimos whose families have lived here for generations can stay close to home if they choose, making a modern living while holding tight to traditional ways, keeping the myriad pleasures – and struggles – of life along the Kuskokwim to themselves.