What better way to illustrate "the art of bouncing back," the theme of the 17th annual Alaska Youth Court Conference held in Homer last week, than with a blanket toss? Drawing from his Inupiat roots, Gregory Nothstine, a Kingikmiut (Inupiat) with the Alaska Tribal Health Consortium in Anchorage, described the activity as a "rich metaphor" for the theme being explored by the 175 participants from around the state attending the April 19-20 gathering.
"We have to pull together," Nothstine told the youth court representatives who stood shoulder to shoulder, holding onto loops of rope wound around the blanket on loan for the event from the World Eskimo Games. "We are harnessing our combined effort."
While Nothstine directed movements of those around the blanket's edges, youth court attendees took turns sitting in the center of the blanket and being sent high into the air by the seemingly effortless movements. With each toss, Nothstine pointed out great heights are achieved through just such a group effort.
"That was something that came out of the theme we chose," said Ginny Espenshade, director of the Kenai Peninsula Youth Court, of inviting Nothstine to lead a blanket toss. "It was magical. We haven't read the evaluations yet, but I'll guess that was a highlight for many."
In addition to Kenai Peninsula Youth Court participants, the conference also included program directors and volunteers with youth courts in Anchorage, Juneau, Ketchikan, Kodiak, the Matanuska-Susitna Valley, Nome, Fairbanks, Sitka, the Upper Tanana area, Valdez, Wrangell, the Yaghanen Youth Council of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe and juvenile probation officers from communities with youth courts. The last time the conference was held in Homer was 2005.
The conference allows youth court representatives opportunities to share ideas and information, "but the most important thing is just networking with each other," said Espenshade.
It also was an opportunity to celebrate the role of youth court participants who serve as judges, juries and legal representation for young defendants, generally first-time offenders.
"I try to make (the conference) a celebration of what they do on the same level as athletes that go to state tournaments maybe once in their high school careers," said Espenshade. "I want to acknowledge what they're doing in their communities."
The two-day agenda began with a welcome by Homer Mayor Beth Wythe at the Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center.
"Wherever you go, be fair, be honest and be consistent," Wythe told the standing-room-only crowd.
"Learn everything you can and hold your heads up high."
Barb Henjum, director of the Division of Juvenile Justice, pointed out there were 3,900 cases referred to Juvenile Justice in the past year and 465 of them had been processed by Youth Courts.
"You provide a huge resource to Alaska and your communities," said Henjum.
Other speakers at the conference included Dr. Linda Chamberlain, who gave a keynote presentation on the adolescent brain; Nigel Wrangham, a certified alcohol and drug counselor and certified prevention specialist; Martin Zeller, who practiced law in Alaska for more than 25 years and is now a mental health professional, mediator and registered artist-in-the-schools in Alaska; singer-songwriter Libby Roderick; Chloe Utley, who, with Wrangham, offered leadership role-playing exercises; Kenai Superior Court Judge Charles Huguelet; Lee Post, a juvenile probation supervisor from Anchorage; defense lawyer Andy Haas of Homer; Kenai assistant district attorney Kelly Lawson; Vickie Tinker, coordinator of the Kenai Peninsula FASD Diagnostic Clinic; Barbara Hood, communications counsel of the Alaska Court System; Officer Ryan Browning of the Homer Police Department; Libby Veasey, founder and lead instructor of HoWL (Homer Wilderness Leaders); Jana Engle, the Mat-Su juvenile probation district supervisor; Curt Shuey and Vanessa Brazell of the Kenaitze Indian Tribal Circle Program; Homer District Court Judge Margaret Murphy; and Michael Green of the Alaska Youth Soccer Association. Carey Moss served as conference coordinator.
Having attended a previous presentation by Chamberlain on brain development, Espenshade knew the importance of physical activity, especially to adolescents.
"Our goal was for every sit-down, talk-to-them class, to have one that moved," she said.
"That was a challenge, but we tried to walk that talk."
Local support helped make the conference a success. United Way funding made it possible to add on a cruise of the bay aboard Rainbow Tours for more than 84 attendees. Best Western Bidarka Inn offered a rate for conference rooms; Land's End Resort provided accommodations, as well as a training room; Alaska Islands and Ocean Visitor Center provided meeting space; a showing of the film "Bully" was held at the Homer Elks Lodge. Following the film, the conference wrapped up with discussions about the film at Bishop's Beach around campfires that had been built in advance by Deb Lowney and her great-nephews, Thatcher and Parker.
"That was the culmination of the conference, right at sunset," said Espenshade. "We wanted it to be flavored like Homer. It was beautiful."
McKibben Jackinsky can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.