The Solutions Desk looks beyond Alaska’s problems and reports on its solutions – the people and programs working to make Alaska communities stronger. Listen to more solutions journalism stories and conversations, and share your own ideas here.
Sometimes when young people are in rough situations, they don’t want to ask for help. Especially not from adults. That’s where peer outreach workers step in. Alaska Youth Advocates have been connecting with youth on the streets of Anchorage and helping them find resources for 25 years.
Twenty-year-old Nichelle used to hang out the AYA drop-in center over a year ago. But she says she was different then — she had been using heroin and other opioids for years.
“When I was using, it was like, I wasn’t thinking about how I was treating other people,” she said. “I wasn’t taking them into consideration.”
Since then she’s sobered up a couple times, moved around a bit. Over the summer, she was homeless and camping in the woods. One day, two peer outreach workers saw her hanging out in a park and let her know she was still welcome at AYA’s drop-in center, whenever she was ready.
Nichelle said at first, she was too embarrassed to go back to AYA because the people at the center had seen her at her worst.
“It was a nerve-wracking experience at first,” she recalled. “But then when I came in here I saw that they were here to support me and not judge me.”
That’s one of the key ideas behind the center – accepting the young people as they are. It’s part of a strategy used around the world, called Positive Youth Development, that focuses on leveraging young people’s strengths as a way to help them learn how to be healthy adults. In order for it to work, youth have to feel safe, supported, and accepted.
Serena Nesteby, the adult who coordinates the program, said sometimes it’s easier for that to happen when young people are leading the effort.
“It’s easier for youth to talk to other youth,” she said. “It’s easier for them to connect to someone who is their same age who maybe went through same or similar experiences as them to reduce barriers and to build stronger relationships.”
And it’s not as if the workers are sent out unprepared – they each have to go through three months of intensive training on everything from addiction to housing to balancing school and work. They bring up those skills in casual conversations and when teaching formal presentations.
Ivory, a peer outreach worker, even demonstrates her favorite coping skill on a regular basis in the drop-in center kitchen – baking. “Yeah, it just gives me something to do,” she said as she finished beating a bowl of lemon cake batter to share with whoever drops by. “I don’t know. It’s good for me.” She said it helps her deal with stress.
Eighteen-year-old Ivory is balancing motherhood with work and will soon start college, too. When she dropped out of high school because of bullying and got pregnant at 15, she says she didn’t have a support network.
“My family wasn’t supportive of me,” she said. Her friends dropped her, too. “They actually told me I wasn’t going to succeed. That I was going to sit at home and not do anything with my life.”
She didn’t know about AYA or other resources, but now, as an outreach worker, she can fill the knowledge gap for other young parents.
She lets them know that “They are not the only people out there. Like they’re important, too, and they can still finish high school, they can still have a job. They can still do what everyone else does when they are older, with children.”
But here’s the catch – Ivory said having a person like that in her life when she was pregnant or having a safe place to go, like the drop-in center, wouldn’t have helped her. She needed to struggle to prove to herself and her family that she could do it, she said.
AYA would not have been a good solution for her, but she said she sees how it helps others, like Nichelle.
After Nichelle finally came back to the youth center, she eventually developed enough courage to apply for a job to be a peer outreach worker. Now she’s in training – and said learning everything in the packed three-inch binder is hard.
Nichelle said working at the youth center forces her to be more outgoing and to face some of her past experiences. More than once she’s come into work and burst into tears. She used to apologize for her weaknesses, but not anymore.
“You know how I see it, at the end of the day is, youth here they see that I can be vulnerable and it’s ok for me to cry, like, then it can send a message to them that it’s okay for them to cry in here, and it makes it more of a safe space,” she said.
The peer outreach workers interacted with 300 different young people last year. More than half were homeless. Some just received hygiene products, snacks, and information. Others came to the center to cook a pot of spaghetti or get help finding housing. The outreach workers met them where they were at. Literally.