In a village of 430 overlooking the confluence of the Kobuk and Squirrel rivers, a youth-directed nonprofit in northwestern Alaska has a simple mission — do at least one positive thing a day. It’s called One Positive Thing-In Kiana — OPT-In, for short. That one thing may be simple, but even simple can have a ripple effect toward strengthening families, friends and communities.
Growing up in Kiana, Ivory Alliqataq Gerhardt-Cyrus could have benefitted from more positive things as she dealt with the effects of prenatal exposure to alcohol.
“Ivory had an extremely tumultuous experience for most of her school years,” said her mother, Jeanne Gerhardt-Cyrus, OPT’s executive director.
By middle school, Ivory was advocating for herself and others facing challenges. At 16, inspired by youth empowerment programs, she founded OPT-In Kiana. Just two years later, Alaska Sen. Dan Sullivan honored her on the U.S. Senate floor, calling her “a powerful young advocate for students suffering from fetal alcohol spectrum disorder.”
Ivory’s top goal was establishing a safe place for kids to go. That started with teen nights in the Gerhardt-Cyrus home, where members had snacks, played games and brainstormed ways making their village a better place.
With grant funding, the team organized three OPT-In Kiana youth conferences, bringing in young people from across the region and beyond, as well as Alaska Native activists and performers, to address self-respect, bullying, substance abuse, suicide prevention and other issues.
With a Rasmuson Foundation Tier 1 grant, OPT purchased a four-wheeler for its positive work, including delivering subsistence foods to Elders, airport shuttles and providing Elders rides to Bingocize, a fall-prevention and strength-building program with a little bingo tossed in.
The group’s current project is converting an old village building into a youth center.
Katie Qutan Nelson-Scott has been an OPTer since she was 12. Now 20, and with the pandemic out of the way, she’s looking forward to getting involved again.
“We used to go around town and ask if anyone needed help with anything,” she said. “Or, we’d go to houses and see if we could take the trash. And, we used to bake and make desserts for people. We’d play games with kids, and then go for a walk so we could have some sunlight. We would meet up and dance and sing.
“I think having the kids, the youth, involved has really made a big difference in our community.”