A map of Alaska with the Statewide region highlighted.
Organization: Alaska Children's Services, Inc. dba AK Child & Family
City: Anchorage
Region: Statewide
Program Area: Human Services \ Family services
Grants Received:
2016: $25,000  1999: $3,300
2013: $200,000  1998: $3,200
2011: $20,500  1997: $4,900
2010: $256,000  1992: $2,000
2008: $25,000  1985: $1,250
2005: $27,415  1984: $2,500
2004: $24,387  1983: $2,500
2003: $73,300  1978: $9,883
2002: $12,607
2000: $17,500

Redefining terra firma


Mission Statement
Alaska Children's Services

Based on the spirit of Christ's love, Alaska Children's Services provides quality care and treatment for children and families who need special assistance to develop self-esteem and the ability to live in harmony with others.
As an English professor, one of my favorite things to do is ask new students to define a word like religion. They quickly recognize the dilemma: I'm asking them to define the boundaries of a system that isn't particularly rigid. Understanding that abstract terms often lead one further into the mire, they seek terra firma, and in the end most rely almost entirely on a list of prevalent world religions: Christianity, Judaism, Buddhism, Hinduism, Islam.

Reciting this short list is like dropping slabs of granite
in the dirt. But every once in a while a different word finds its
way into the list, a word like peace or love. I call this redefining terra firma and tell students it's like adding a pebble to the bedrock and changing the terrain forever.

A photo of a child's drawing of a garden.Spacer Image However, the subject of religion isn't always academic. I'm reminded of this sometimes, like the other day when the spiritual director at Alaska Children's Services told me that some of the kids at her treatment facility slip transcriptions of their nightmares into the prayer box.

From a theological perspective, these children might be simply misunderstanding the concept of prayer. But, then, they aren't at Bible camp.

***

ACS treats troubled six- to eighteen-year-olds, many who have made the rounds of all the programs available (one eleven-year-old resident has been in treatment 26 times). A lot of the kids have committed crimes and endured abuses the thought of which make most people cringe.

Many are already sex offenders. Some of their own parents have prostituted them.

But where most treatment programs are strictly secular or ministerial, ACS occupies the middle ground. Medicaid provides most of its budget, which is supplemented by donations from local churches (the organization's full-time treatment centers are located on rent-free church land). It's a delicate balance between church and state and at the center I visited — a wooded 25-acre campus on an Anchorage hillside — spiritual activities are strictly voluntary and non-sectarian.

An exterior photo of the Newhall building.Spacer Image As spiritual life director, Kelli Williams does everything from presiding over ceremonies in the campus sweat lodge to organizing empathy training to baking cookies. And she shies away from the word religion in this context because she considers it too unyielding.

For example, when a fifteen-year-old resident learned that his best friend had committed suicide, Williams asked him if he wanted to try communicating with his dead friend somehow.

At first he resisted the notion that the dead can hear.

But fishing was a big part of the boy's and his friend's lives, and eventually Williams accompanied him to a creek where he set sail a small raft he'd made from Popsicle sticks.

***

"When I got here seven years ago," says Williams, "it was kind of in vogue to say you were a devil worshipper. I said, ‘Okay, so that's what you believe.' The only source of information they had was other kids and so I'd have them look more seriously at it. I'd ask them how it made them feel. ‘Does this particular thing make you feel darker or lighter?' I'd ask. You don't have to understand religion to know the answer to that kind of thing."

But sometimes Williams asks them to go beyond light or dark, to consider the roots of their feelings.

In one of the activities, she has each participant place a pebble in their shoe. At first they fidget and complain about the discomfort, but after a while the flesh becomes numb.

"You have to point it out to them that it's still there," she says. "We tell them that's how pain works, that you can become numb to it and forget about it but it's still there doing harm. We encourage them to name that hurt, to themselves or out loud. Some of them put whatever it is in the God Box and give it to God. But there was one kid who kept the pebble in his shoe for three weeks. I don't know what he was holding onto, but after three weeks we were in the sweat lodge and he threw it in the fire."



Shane Castle teaches English at the University of Alaska Anchorage. His writing has been featured in The Anchorage Press, on the public radio show AK, and at The Last Frontier Theater Conference. He is currently working on a novel about some misfits.