Mental Health & the Alaskan Family 4-Part Series



The Kids These Days! team delve into issues that affect the well being and mental health of our youth and our families in this special 4-part radio series. From learning what to do in a mental health crisis, to how schools manage behavioral health issues to supporting our caregivers and helping adult children transition to independence - these are our conversations and special reports from Alaska's mental health community.

This series was (or will be) heard on the following stations: KSKA-Anchorage, KTOO-Juneau, KCAW-Sitka, KYUK-Bethel, KOTZ-Kotzebue, KDLG-Dillingham.

• EPISODE 1: Responding to a Mental Health Crisis

Would you know what to do and where to find help if someone in your family was experiencing a mental health crisis? Also on this program we have a special report on first aid for mental health training; and an Alaskan Native perspective on what "mental health" means.

• EPISODE 2:  Supporting Parents & Caregivers with Mental Health Challenges 

Moms, dads, and caregivers with mental health diagnoses need support - where do they find it, when to be open with others, and how to help children understand. Plus, a look at how Alanon works and parents tell us how they stay sane.

• EPISODE 3: Mental Health at School

Children who are experiencing a mental health challenge - whether a long-term diagnosis or a temporary situation - need special support, so how do schools provide that? Plus, a report on children with FASD, a rural Alaskan POV on mental health at school, and middle schoolers tell us how bullying makes them feel. 

• EPISODE 4: Transitioning to Adulthood with Mental Health Challenges

Helping children with a mental health diagnosis transition to adulthood; also, early adulthood is when some serious psychiatric disorders start to become known - how can families, schools and communities support these young people? Plus, a special report on Covenant House; parent tell us how they deal with every day change.  

This series is supported by funds from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and is a copyrighted production of the Content Producers Guild.



Episode 1: Responding a Mental Health Crisis



In the first of our special, 4-part series on Family Mental Health, we take a look at what you would need to know if your family experiences a mental health crisis. When do you ask for help? Where do you find help? What if it’s the caregiver who’s in need? And what if it’s a child who’s struggling?


IN-STUDIO GUESTS: Joining us from Alaska's mental healthcare community we have three guests in the studio with host, Shana Sheehy. 

• Randee Shafer is a licensed Clinical Social Worker. She works as the Clinical Supervisor of the Providence Adolescent Residential Treatment Program which provides long-term mental health treatment for teenage girls. 

• Kimberly Pettit is a co-founder of the Psychiatric Emergency Department at Providence Alaska Medical Center where she is currently the Behavioral Health Manager. She also has a private practice in which she provides child custody mediation, adoption, and parenting coordination services.  

• Paul Cornils is the Executive Director of Alaska Youth and Family Network, a peer-run behavioral health agency that provides peer-to-peer support, advocacy, systems navigation and education to parents, children, youth and young adults.





- Training for crisis response - Contributor Jessica Cochran reports on two programs in Alaska that are training others to respond to mental health crises: The Mental Health First Aid Training program and the Anchorage Police Department's Crisis Intervention Team. 

- A tribal perspective - Evon Peter, Wellness Director at the Maniilaq Association in Kotzebue, spoke with Producer Sarah Gonzales about Native Alaskan perspectives on mental health.  

This series is supported by funds from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and is a copyrighted production of the Content Producers Guild.

Listen to the whole series here.





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Episode 2: Caregivers with Mental Health Challenges


When mom or dad - or any caregiver of children - struggles with mental health issues it will affect the whole family. On this program we discuss how caregivers can find support for an array of challenges - from long-term diagnoses like depression and bipolar to temporary concerns caused by abuse or difficult relationships. Plus, how open should caregivers be about their mental health issues, support for living with an alcoholic family member and how poverty + depression go hand-in-hand. 


IN-STUDIO GUESTS: Joining us from Alaska's mental healthcare community we have two guests in the studio with host, Shana Sheehy.

• Francine Harbour is the executive director of the Anchorage affiliate of the National Alliance on Mental Illness – or NAMI. She is a teacher and teacher-trainer for the NAMI Family-to-Family class, a free 12-week class where family members come together to learn about mental illness so they can take better care of their ill relatives and themselves. Francine is a family member herself of relatives with mental illness as well as a person in recovery from mental illness.

• Virginia McCaslin is the shelter manager at Abused Women’s Aid in Crisis, Inc – or AWAIC. She’s a long-time Alaskan resident and worked in medical administration before studying psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage. 




- Rural & Urban Parents Tell Us About Staying Sane - We like to hear what listeners think, so we asked people what they do to keep themselves in good mental health. Here are some of the answers we collected around Anchorage and in the interior community of St. Marys.

- Living with an Alcoholic Family Member - Sharing a home or life with an alcoholic makes for a lot of uncertainty and chaos; fortunately there is a support group to help. Al-Anon is based on the belief that alcoholism is a family illness. Family members and friends of alcoholics gather together to share their experiences, and work through the same 12 steps as AA members. Ala-teen is just for young people living with alcoholism in their homes. Contributor Jessica Cochran reports.

This series is supported by funds from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and is a copyrighted production of the Content Producers Guild. 

Listen to the whole series here.  




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Episode 3: Mental Health at School


Kids can experience mental health issues and kids spend a lot of time at school. So what happens at school when a student needs extra help - for a temporary mental health issue or a long-term diagnosis? How do schools respond and are they a place to find help? Parents, when should you talk to the school about a child's difficulties - is it a phase, is it affecting academics?


IN-STUDIO GUESTS: Joining us from Alaska's mental healthcare community are two women who work in education. 

• Bonnie Thurston is the Director of Intensive School & Community Based Services at Denali Family Services. Bonnie spent 16 years in rural Alaska as an educator, principal and administrator for the village of Igiugig. In her position at Denali Family Services she oversees more than 50 behavioral health professionals in Anchorage, Palmer and Wasilla. She says she and her staff offer quality, wrap-around services to children and families in need in the Southcentral region.

• Sally Donaldson is a middle school counselor at D’zantikiheeni Middle School in Juneau. She’s also the contact person the for the Juneau School District’s Students/Families in Transition program. Sally has been a mental health professional in a school setting for many years and she’s the former president of the Alaska Association of School Counselors.





- Helping Alaskan Students with FASD - One problem some teachers and school officials often mistake as a mental health issue is actually physical disability. Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder occurs in people who were prenatally exposed to alcohol. Alcohol impacts how the brain is built and many of the effects look similar to behavior problems, like willful disobedience. Contributor Anne Hillman learned about how communities and schools around the state are helping kids with FASD succeed.

- A Rural School District Perspective - Alaska’s small communities and schools may have some advantages when it comes to looking out for how kids are doing emotionally  - people know each other and can see when things aren’t going so well. But they also have extra challenges - like fewer specialized staff members to handle a crisis, a lot of alcohol abuse and family trauma. Contributor Jessica Cochran spoke with Scammon Bay assistant principal Harley Sundown about how schools in the Lower Yukon School District try to meet the mental health needs of their students with programs like the Natural Helpers.  

- Tweens Talk Bullying & Mental Health - Being bullied at school can have an impact on a student’s mental well-being and their ability to concentrate. Contributor Jessica Cochran visited the Alaska Native Cultural Charter School in Anchorage to speak with some seventh grade students about their experiences.

This series is supported by funds from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and is a copyrighted production of the Content Producers Guild.


Listen to the whole series here.




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Episode 4: Transitioning to Adulthood with Mental Health Challenges


Kids with mental health challenges eventually grow up and become adults. So how do caregivers and communities help them as they make this major transition? And, since many psychological conditions begin in early adulthood– how can parents, friends and even, colleges, help them understand and learn to manage their own mental health?


IN-STUDIO GUESTS: Joining us from Alaska's mental healthcare community we have two guests in the studio with host, Shana Sheehy.

• Barry Andres is a Licensed Clinical Social Worker and Clinical Manager of the Child and Adolescent Outpatient Department at Anchorage Community Mental Health Services where one division, theTransitional Aged Youth Program, helps young people move from one form of care to another.

• Georgia DeKeyser is a Psychiatric Nurse Practitioner and the Associate Director of the University of Alaska Anchorage Student Health and Counseling Center




- Parents Talk About Change - We asked a few parents how they deal with transition; we've gathered their answers into a collection of community voices.

- Covenant House Helping Youth in Transition - Young adults who experience mental illness are more likely to be homeless at some point.Covenant House Alaska serves homeless youth through age 20; about 40% of the youth they serve have been in residential treatment for behavioral and mental health issues. Twice as many qualify as beneficiaries of the Alaska Mental Trust Authority, meaning they have a substance abuse problem, mental health issue, traumatic brain injury and/or a developmental disability. Our contributor Jessica Cochran visited Covenant House to learn how the organization helps serve those youth.

- UAA's "AN-CAP" Program Attracts Alaska Native Providers -One new program at the University of Alaska is aimed at increasing the number of “home-grown” mental health care providers in rural Alaska - to help people of all ages. The program is called the AN-CAP program; that stands for Alaska Native Community Advancement in Psychology. It’s a re-tooling of the previous Alaska Native Psychology Program. Contributor Jessica Cochran spoke with Professor EJ David and student Tina Woods to learn more about it.

This series is supported by funds from the Alaska Mental Health Trust Authority and is a copyrighted production of the Content Producers Guild.

Listen to the whole series here.




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Mental Illness Can't Keep You from Great Family Travel

I APOLOGIZE TO the Alaska Railroad reservations agent who took our request for tickets to Talkeetna the weekend before Christmas. Normally I am not so obsessive-compulsive about seating arrangements, but my older son was with us, and he likes to know things ahead of time. 

It’s complicated.

MJ is 18 and, up until this past October, had been out of our home and in residential treatment for a laundry list of issues. Autism spectrum, depression, intermittent explosive disorder; the diagnoses came and went like seasons. My son is one of thousands in Alaska with mental illness, and now he’s back in our lives and part of our traveling an extent, anyway - travel with MJ is different.

There are no last-minute, go-on-a-whim sorts of excursions when he’s with us. Whereas previous journeys were at a fast pace to accommodate multiple attractions, the trips with MJ are filled with alternatives. Alternative sights, alternative food, alternative schedules. For everything, there must be a second scenario ready to be implemented, ASAP. We’ve learned that renting a cabin or suite with a separate bedroom provides quiet relief for anxious moments, that ear buds on a noisy train or in a restaurant are perfectly okay. My husband and I have uncovered unique coping strategies to help soothe tense situations, and the phrase “divide and conquer” has become a whole new mantra, occasionally working well enough for a deep breath of reassurance that yes, indeed, we can do this - while including MJ.

It's MJ experiencing Alaska. 

Why shouldn’t he be allowed to travel in a manner that brings comfort? Alaska is an excellent destination for people like MJ who crave solitude, an absence of artificial noise, and basic, no-frills service. After all, just because hundreds flock to a glacier and wildlife cruise aboard a small ship with blaring microphones and cramped decks doesn’t mean he should, too. Viewing Alaska through his eyes has allowed us a fresh perspective on the travel industry, most especially so in Alaska, where frenetic pacing and long, exhausting days just won’t work. Paying close attention to MJ’s moods, we’ve discovered what parents of smaller children already know; factors like rest, different food, or a lack of exercise can cause night-and-day swings of happy to sad in a matter of moments. Instead of driving five hours to reach a destination, we might go two or never reach it at all, stopping instead to admire a waterfall, toss rocks into a river, or inspect interpretive signs along the highway. 

We’ve learned to slow down, quiet the noise, and throw out expectations long before we shut the garage door behind us. Snowshoes not fitting quite right? No problem, head back to the cabin and delve into a book, we won’t mind. Too many people talking too loud on the train? Pop in those ear buds and move to the back. This family understands. 

In light of negative attention surrounding mental illness in recent days, perhaps others will understand, too. 

Note: This is the last post I shall publish for Kids These Days. I wish to extend gratitude to the producers, writers, and hosts for their incredible insight and support for the difficult job of “raising Alaska’s future;” without projects like this one, that future might be even more confusing. Sarah, Shana, Jamie, and Jessica, thank you for thinking about kids, and the adults who nurture and love their little (and big) souls. 

Erin Kirkland is a freelance writer and publisher of AKontheGO, a website dedicated to Alaska family travel and recreation. She lives a charmed life in Anchorage with her fabulous family.  








6 Ways to Stay Happy and Healthy This Winter

AS THE JOYS and excitement of Christmas and New Year’s pass by, in rolls January, a long and notoriously cold month. Add in the extraordinary darkness of winter in Alaska and you have a recipe for the mid-winter blues. Cheer up! We’re gaining daylight already and soon summer will be here in all her glory. Until then here are 6 ways to help smooth over the winter blues and perhaps even avoid them. These ideas are for kids and parents alike. Well, I guess just about anybody who needs a gentle boost through this time of the year.

Keep those blues away with oranges and reds and greens.

1. Sleep on It Get plenty of rest. Adults need a MINIMUM of 8 hours but try for 9—you’ll feel great. Kids should be getting between 10-12 hours a night. Don’t turn on the TV at night, either—it makes for bad sleep. Instead read a book, do some stretches and relax into sleep.

2. Drink It Drink up your water. How much?? Eight 8-ounce glasses is the suggested amount. For kids, the suggested amount is 5-8 glasses a day. Why drink water? Well being dehydrated can leave you cranky, feeling tired and give you a headache. Hard to feel good when you feel bad.

3. Laugh Yeah this one is hard, when someone says laugh it makes it really hard to, right? But grab a joke book from the library and have your kids read it to you while you’re cooking dinner and you’ll all be laughing soon enough. We have a family wrestling night in our house. We push back the chairs and such and wrestle each other. We always end up laughing at the end. Make life fun, even if you don’t want to, your kids will appreciate it.

4. GET OUT Even if it’s cold out, bundle up and get out there. You need to change up your surroundings and breathe fresh air every day. Got a dog? Grab the leash and off you go. If it’s too slick, put on some ice walkers. If it’s too windy, throw on a windbreaker. Your body will thank you for this.

Let the games begin. Become a bunch of gamers. Board gamers.

5. Game Time We thrive on games. We play something every night in the winter. Games help us laugh, seek revenge on an annoying brother, teach us to take turns and, most of all, spend good quality time together.

6. EAT Eat right or as well as you can. Make sure your meals include lots of fruits and vegetables, as many as a miserable winter in Alaska will provide anyway. Mix it up, try new recipes, make family favorites, get your kids involved and their grandparents. Host small dinner parties or potlucks for fun and diversity. Make sure to take a multivitamin OR other supplements your body needs.

If you feel the blues sneaking up on you, go back through the checklist. Already checked everything off the list and you're not feeling any better? You’re not the only one feeling SAD (Seasonal Affective Disorder); let the experts help. Don’t spend another miserable cranky winter in Alaska; make it great!

Snow Ice Cream

I'VE BEEN WANTING to do this post since winter began, but it takes one special ingredient that has strangely been lacking this year: SNOW. Only once this season have we been able to make this long-awaited treat. We put out a bowl to collect the sparkling white flecks, hoping the weather report would be correct and the snow would come. The snow never came. We got nothing. Nada. No snow. We kept our bowl out there for days. Then, slowly, we saw snow dancing from the sky, and our bowl began to fill. It was unlike snow that we usually receive. It was wet and heavy. Not soft and fluffy. We didn’t care. We took what we could get. It was time to make SNOW ICE CREAM!

We always made snow ice cream growing up, and have continued the tradition in my own family. It’s exciting for young and old; eating something that had fallen from the sky. You have to gobble it up quickly, though, before it turns into snow soup. But that’s just part of the fun.

I’ve made some changes over the years, but it’s basically made just like regular ice cream, sans eggs. Typical ice cream is made with milk and/or heavy cream, sugar and flavorings. It needs to be churned, then frozen. In this case, we eliminate the need for churning and freezing as we start with "cream" (snow) that’s already frozen.

To prepare for the excitement of making snow ice cream, lay a large bowl outside when there’s a chance of snow. It’s fun for kids to watch and keep checking to see how full the bowl becomes. Collect the rest of your ingredients so you’re ready when the snow comes inside; powdered sugar, evaporated milk and desired flavorings and toppings. I use powdered sugar instead of granulated sugar, as it dissolves quickly and easily, leaving behind no hint of graininess. Evaporated milk can be kept cold in the fridge, or used straight out of the can at room temperature. You can use regular milk, too, but evaporated milk provides some thickness and richness to the ice cream. For flavorings, you can use vanilla or almond extract. Also, we like to add jams and jellies for flavor and toppings. Just like regular ice cream, the topping possibilities are endless.

I confess, I never use a recipe, but for the sake of this post, I’ll provide one just for a guideline.

Snow Ice Cream

8 cups fresh snow*
¾ cup powdered sugar
½ cup evaporated milk
1 tsp. vanilla or almond extract

Add powdered sugar to bowl of snow, and stir well. Start with ½ cup of powdered sugar, adding more if you desire more sweetness. Slowly add evaporated milk until you achieve the consistency you desire. Keep it relatively thick, as it will melt faster than you can eat it! Add desired flavorings, and continue to mix. Quickly spoon into bowls, and top with your favorite ice cream treats.

*Keep in mind, this was measured with wet, heavy snow. This is best made with our traditional fluffy, dry snow. Only Alaskans will understand the term “dry snow.” It’s best to catch the snow in a bowl left outside, but you can also collect it carefully by shoveling it into a bowl with your hands. Try to avoid any yellow or dirty snow, of course!

New Series on Family Mental Health Starts January 8!

Kids These Days! is back with a special 4-part series on Family Mental Health! Join the whole Kids These Days! team as we delve into issues that affect our kids, ourselves and our communities. From learning what to do in a mental health crisis, to how schools manage behavioral health issues to supporting our caregivers and helping adult children transition to independence - those are the conversations on a special mental health series airing Tuesdays in January on KSKA 91.1 FM and here on

  • Tues, Jan 8 @ 2 & 7pm: "Responding to a Mental Health Crisis"
  • Tues, Jan 15 @ 2 & 7pm: "Supporting Parents & Caregivers with Mental Health Challenges"
  • Tues, Jan 22 @ 2 & 7pm: "Mental Health at School"
  • Tues, Jan 29 @ 2 & 7pm: "Transitioning to Adulthood with Mental Health Challenges"



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Being Young in Rural Alaska #12: Growing Up Around Alcohol Abuse

Report no. 12: Growing Up Around Alcohol Abuse

Reporting from: Kotzebue, AK (pop. 3,294)

HOST INTRO: Rates of alcohol abuse in Alaska are some of the highest in the nation and communities across the state regularly suffer from domestic violence, abuse, suicide and other related issues because of it. This is the final installment of the special reporting series, “Being Young In Rural Alaska” from the producers of Kids These Days.

Traveling and reporting in rural Alaska, it’s impossible to miss the signs of alcohol abuse, and yet people often don’t talk about it: it’s such a part of life that it’s almost taken for granted. So what’s it like to be a kid growing up around heavy alcohol use in small-town Alaska? Sarah Gonzales heads to Kotzebue to find out.

Kotzebue is located just north of the Arctic Circle. The community recently voted to have a liquor store in town - the first in a generation. 


SARAH GONZALES: Teens in the youth leader program in Kotzebue have some strong opinions about alcohol: 

[Teen voices montage] “I grew up here seeing people drink I’ve heard stories of people dying from overdrinking and I’ve seen what drinking can do to a person and I don’t like it… It hurts the family, too…Drinking can affect the family emotionally, physically and mentally…Fighting and don’t remember the family times and stuff like that…The alcohol and the abuse that I don’t like about this town…” 

Teen Leaders in Kotzebue.

They are outspoken among their peers on the issues of drinking, smoking, using drugs - trying to both educate and set a good example for younger students.  They’ve grown up surrounded by a lot of alcohol: 

[Teen voices montage cont…] “I’ve seen my mom and relatives drinking…My dad and uncle and them and I’ve seen the way they act and I don’t wanna act like they did…After they’ve been drinking how they were, their behavior and in the morning they’d be grouchy and I don’t wanna be like that…It really saddens me to see the people – MY people I grew up with – acting like that….It makes me feel like I’m the adult and they’re the children.” 

Meritha Cappelle is now a young adult in her 20’s. She grew up Kiana, a small village outside Kotzebue; she’s now an administrator within the borough. 

[Meritha Capelle] “A lot! There was a lot of drinking growing up. I mean, it was just the social norm.” 

Capelle says that for her growing up in a place where alcohol was restricted, where people struggled with alcoholism, made it difficult to form any sort of so-called “normal” view of drinking. 

[Capelle] “I would say it wasn’t until I left Alaska that I realized, ‘Oh they have liquor on the shelves here,’ it wasn’t locked up in a whole separate store. There was a different way to drink responsibly or even a healthy way to drink, you know, to be able to stop at a drink or two rather than finishing a bottle in fifteen minutes.” 

Kotzebue voted three years ago to allow alcohol and two years ago the package store and distribution center opened in town. Purchasing liquor is legal in limited quantities and only after paying the city for a permit and a background check.  The system brings in revenue for the city, and allows for pretty strict regulation.  That’s won the support of many community members, including law enforcement. Police Chief Craig Moates says the opening of the store hasn’t made much of an impact on the number of alcohol-related calls that they respond to. 

[Chief Moates] “We respond to a number of calls ranging from theft to assaults. (Sarah: Do you have any way of knowing if the assaults or anything else are related to alcohol?) Well, generically here we say it’s the anomaly when the calls aren’t alcohol-related.”

The "liquor store" in Kotzebue is adjacent to the police station.  

Those who want to get drunk will find a way to get their booze one way or another – bootlegging, homebrew, at a store - which is why some think that teaching youth how to have a healthier relationship with alcohol through moderation could be a more valuable message than the total abstinence one.

Scotty Barr grew up in Kotzebue, he’s now a health educator with Akeela: 

[Scotty Barr] “If we can as parents teach them to stay healthy and not scare them off – you know, alcohol is bad for you, tobacco is bad for you – it’s like you’re fueling them and they say, you know, I’m gonna try this.”

A truck hauling a liquor shipment from airport to package store. Those with a permit are allowed 1 liter of hard liquor, 2 liters of wine and 1 gallon of beer per day.  

But, there’s enough stigma about alcohol abuse, that many moderate users don’t want to engage in any sort of public, alcohol-related behavior says Meritha, like buying a bottle of wine at the local package store... 

[Capelle] “I won’t go there, you know, and that’s the thing – it’s not that I won’t have a drink but I won’t go there…there’s definitely a stigma.”

(From Left) Reporter Sarah Gonzales, Merithe Capelle & reporter Anne Hillman in Kotzebue. 

And while so many people still struggle with alcohol abuse, that stigma may remain. Maniilaq Association is trying new methods in its treatment and recovery programs to try to bring those numbers down.  

Bree Swanson is the Administrator for Social Services there. She says it used to be that the way those services were offered wasn’t successful – helping people get better away from their families and villages meant they often returned to the same harmful environment from before; recovery support groups were often canceled due to lack of participation. Turning that around all came down to dependable facilitators, establishing trust and implementing Inupiaq values. 

[Swanson] “We started out with nobody showing up and now we have 24 in a group, so we had to add more hours just recently.” 

Swanson says their training of Village-Based Counselors helps people where they live - and Maniilaq's starting to implement telemedicine capabilities, too - so providers in the hub of Kotzebue can remotely connect to outlying clients in the villages. 

But turning a life around from alcohol abuse isn’t just quitting the drink, she says, it’s about having work, feeling useful, being surrounded by supportive family and friends, managing everyday stressors. It's really about getting the entire community well. 

[Swanson] “You know you go back into the same community with the same people doing the same things and it’s really easy to get pulled back into that same cycle.” 

Breaking the cycle is a frequent topic of conversation among the teen youth leaders and their advisor, Michelle Woods, is no-nonsense when it comes to discussing this topic with them. 

[Woods] “If you’re gonna stay in the village then you make it a good village. If you don’t like the fact that you can’t walk down the street because you got a bunch of drunks being ass****s then YOU change it and you change it now by your attitude and by what you say to the little kids.”


Straight-talking Teen Leaders advisor, Michelle Woods

And the young people want that change. Fifteen-year old Lorena Gephardt wants to go away to college to become a pharmacist and then come back to Kotzebue to live, work and raise her own family. She hopes to do all that in a healthier environment. 

[Gephardt] “With that stuff gone – no more drunks, no more smoking or just a healthier diet – could really make a difference in this community. (Sarah: Do you think you guys can help that happen?) I DO think that because WE are the next generation, we’re the VOICES and we DO make an impact.” 

And they most likely will - if they receive the support they need to make those healthier decisions - for themselves, their families and the community as a whole. 

Reporting from Kotzebue, I’m Sarah Gonzales.

The "Being Young in Rural Alaska" reporting series airs statewide Mondays on Alaska News Nightly at 5pm or 6pm depending on your location. Go here to find your APRN station & schedule.

This series is supported by funds from the Association of Alaska School Boards' Initiative for Community Engagement program.



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New Year's Resolutions

MANY NEW YEAR'S ago I made a resolution not to make New Year’s resolutions. I am a firm believer that if I want or need to do something, I should do it and not wait for a new year to set a specific goal. With children in my life, I have now softened my New Year’s resolution approach.

This year I'm going to brush my teeth without being asked.

Resolutions are difficult concept for young children, but “fun size” resolutions in the form of goals are much easier. Teaching children how to set simple goals is an important aspect to their life growth. They can be quite simple: Being helpful with the morning routine and on time for school, being helpful around the house, not whining and using words instead. As the father of two children under 5 years old, these are not lofty goals, but realistic to their current developmental stages and attainable. Some days. Hopefully this is establishing the practice of making bigger goals and working toward the success of more difficult achievements.

This year we're gonna make it to the ceiling!

This frequent goal setting happening at our household makes me recognize that having bigger goals—resolutions, really--may be beneficial to my partner and me and instructional to our young family members.

In the hopes of maybe inspiring some thoughtful resolutions for your family in the coming year, here are some that I have for our family in the new year, in no particular order after numbers 1 through 3:

  1. Value one another every day.
  2. Find times and ways to prioritize my partner and her livelihood.
  3. Spend some quality time with my parents outside of their grandchildren.
  4. Take one lengthier family trip before August when we will need to pay for four airline tickets.
  5. Go fishing whenever possible with our sons in the coming season.
  6. Plan one overnight trip in a tent or cabin during the summer months.
  7. Get our oldest son off the “bunny” hill at our local ski area.
  8. Successful completion of swim lessons for our oldest son and introductory swim lessons for or youngest.
  9. Make one weekly commute with our sons via bicycle May through August; specifically me on the bike and them in the bike trailer.
  10. More berry picking than this past year.
  11. Participate in an outside Father’s Day event.
  12. Organize a family Summer Solstice event.

Who are those cute kids on your blog, Dad?

Happy New Year’s to you and your family. It is my hope that you value every day with one another in the coming year and beyond.

6 Fun Thank You Card Ideas

YES, IT'S THAT time of year again--time to force small children into writing those thank you cards. And if you’re wondering, YES, they are important. If not to thank the appropriate people for the gifts of the season, then for a lesson in persistence and proper manners. I have dug around and come up with six fun card ideas your kids will WANT to make and send. No, really, they’re fun and think of how wonderful the friends and family will feel who receive them.

You’ll want an array of crafty things, depending on which cards you plan to make. Blank paper cards are nice but not a necessary thing to have as you’ll see soon enough. Depending on the ages of your kids, your involvement will be all, nothing or somewhere in between. We’re in the somewhere-in-between area, where we have to ride them hard to make it happen, but once it gets going, the creativity just flows. Don’t push it too hard, but don’t let it slide away either, being thankful is important and it is also a learned behavior.

1. Get Out The Paints: Have your kids paint a picture of the gift OR them playing with the gift or using it. FUN and creatively exciting.

2. Grab a Photo: Take a picture of your kids playing with OR using the gift. Better yet, have your kids use the camera to take a picture of the gift in their room. Be sure to monitor camera use and get the photos printed in a timely manner.

3. Hire Them: We once hired our middle son to make our Christmas cards. He worked for days painting and touching the up with glitter. They were beautiful and we loved sending them, and we got the cards for very little.

4. Get Online: Lots of places like Shutterfly and Walgreens and Costco have templates for making cards online. Upload a picture, choose the text, send in the order and pick up your cards in your mailbox or in the store. Then it is simply signing a name and mailing them off.

5. Write in Hidden Ink: Better known as white crayon! Write the message in white crayon and paint over it. This one is FUN!

6. Black Out: Cover an entire blank white card with crayon, then paint over with black tempura paint. Scratch your thank yous in the black paint and let the colors shine through.

Cinnamon-Apple French Toast Casserole

I WISH I could experience Christmas morning as a child again. There’s no better day for a child than Christmas day. The anticipation is excruciating. The time goes by so slowly; it seems like it will NEVER be here. Then it happens, the sleepless night on Christmas Eve, waking early to the delight of parents everywhere (NOT!), sitting on the stairs waiting to see what Santa stuffed in our stockings. Ripping up presents as fast as our parents can hand them to us. Then the euphoria afterward, sitting in an ocean of presents, wrapping paper, boxes and ribbons. Bliss.

If Santa had known you were making this, he might've stayed!

Finally, we realize we’re hungry. For my family, we didn’t have a big Christmas dinner. Instead, we had a large breakfast. Cheesy scrambled eggs, mandarin oranges, sausage links and butterhorns loaded with frosting and nuts. Bliss, round two.

The only thing better than being a child at Christmas is experiencing it through your own children. As a child, you don’t realize how much effort it takes for parents to pull off a perfect Christmas morning. The preparation it takes is exhausting sometimes, but so worth it. The look in their eyes is priceless. The smiles of surprise, the joy and squeals of delight that can’t be captured in a photograph, but are forever etched in your heart.

To make Christmas morning easier, I’m offering a French toast casserole. French toast has always been my favorite breakfast, but it’s time consuming to make. I don’t want to spend much time in the kitchen on Christmas morning. I don’t want to miss a moment. This casserole can be prepared the night before and placed in the oven the following morning. An added bonus; it has the wonderful surprise of apples on the bottom.

I recommend using challah bread. You could make if from scratch if you’re so inclined, but it’s available in most grocery stores this time of year. I purchased mine at Fire Island Bakery, which I highly recommend. My children love going there with me and nibbling on their tasty samples. The staff is so friendly and helpful. If you don’t have challah, use your favorite bread. I think the cinnamon chip bread at Great Harvest would be incredible also.

Make-Ahead Cinnamon-Apple French Toast Casserole

1/3 cup melted butter
3/4 cup brown sugar, divided
1 tsp. cinnamon, divided
3 apples, cored and sliced thin (if not organic, peel the apples)
1 loaf of challah, about 1 ½ pounds
8 eggs
1 cup milk
1 tablespoon vanilla extract
½ cup pecans (optional)

Preheat oven to 350 (unless baking it the following day). Mix together melted butter and ½ cup brown sugar. Spread the mixture in the bottom of a 9X13 pan. As you slice the apples, place them in a bowl with ¼ cup brown sugar and ½ tsp. cinnamon. Mix well, and place an even layer of apples on top of the melted butter mixture. Slice the challah into 1-inch slices, then into cubes. In a bowl, mix eggs, milk, cinnamon and vanilla. Add challah and let soak in the milk mixture before adding entire mixture to the pan on top of the apples. Sprinkle pecans on top, if using. Bake right away, or cover with plastic wrap and place in the refrigerator overnight. When ready to bake, remove the plastic wrap and let it sit on the counter for 20-30 minutes before placing in a 350 oven for about 50 minutes.

Serve with maple syrup and powdered sugar.

Merry Christmas and Happy New Year. Enjoy it through the eyes of a child!

Curl Up with a Good Book

LIKE MANY OTHER parents, I’ve been doing a lot of hugging and holding this week, trying the mitigate the effects of a tragedy, if only through my own children. I’ve found myself shifting back to simple things that bring our family joy; long treks in the woods, a little bit of sledding and time spent in front of the woodstove, hands curled around steaming cups of hot chocolate. And reading, lots and lots of reading.

Owen works up his appetite for cocoa with some treeside activity.

Occasionally I get requests to review outdoor-themed gear or books related to our activities in Alaska, so I wasn’t too surprised when an agent from Sasquatch Books in Seattle sent two new books along with a note asking if I’d kindly read and offer my thoughts. Both books, I Would Tuck You In and Larry Gets Lost in Alaska, are great representations of our state, with engaging stories, interesting facts and beautiful illustrations. They were also just what we needed.

I Would Tuck You In is the perfect parent-child love story, with a variety of Alaska creatures making their little ones safe and secure in dens, kelp beds, on tundra trails and in the wide Arctic sky. Perfect for kids birth to five, this charming book by Juneau residents Sarah Asper-Smith and Mitchell Watley provides bedtime-story comfort, any time of the day or night. What I like, though, are the explanatory notes at the bottom of each page to engage the older reader, too. Learn about caribou, brown bears, bowhead whales or owls as you smoothly navigate the pages, and calmly assure youngsters you will indeed, love them always.

Pete is a boy, Larry his pup and the two find adventures together all over the world. The Larry Gets Lost series is a new one for us and while the book outwardly looks appropriate for a younger crowd, the pages are full of cool Alaska facts and funny mishaps shaped into a rhythmic prose kids will love. Larry Gets Lost in Alaska starts on an Alaska Marine Highway ferry and ends in Nome and, rest assured, Larry finds some new friends along the way. Authors John Skewes and Michael Mullin are spot-on with their Alaska trivia and any family with kids under 10 who is planning on traveling around the state should buy this book before hitting the road, water or air.

Available via, these delightful books would make the perfect present for kids in Alaska or Outside. Resident families might learn something new about their home and Lower 48 friends or relatives will enjoy the diversity of Alaska’s animals and environment.

Cozy up with your precious ones this holiday season and read together. Start a new tradition of giving books for Christmas and create your own unique album of memories.

Erin Kirkland is a freelance writer and publisher of, a website dedicated to Alaska family travel and outdoor recreation. She lives in Anchorage with her family.

Thoughtful Gifts for the Last-Minute Shopper

THE MOMENTS LEFT before Christmas are speeding by. The time to think about giving a thoughtful gift is now!

My parents always told me that "it's the thought that counts" which never made me happier to receive socks or underwear for Christmas but it is a valuable lesson I learned with warm feet. I am passing this lesson on to our offspring, hopefully. In the hopes of inspiring your last minute gift purchases here are gifts that I am giving this year:

1. EXPERIENCE. Give the gift of an experience! This year I gifted tickets to our local performance of The Nutcracker to my partner and oldest son. Our family also gifted a holiday miniature gold experience to our son’s daycare class. Give a ski lift ticket, admission to the ice rink, a pool pass or a ticket to a once-a-year event. As a parent, this could be a win-win, providing a great gift that is not stuff and an opportunity to have a special experience with your child.

Your kids will be easy to spot outside with flashy accessories.

2. LIGHT. At this time of year, all Alaskans know about the surplus of darkness. Kids do not glow, so give them the gift of a zipper light, head lamp, a flashing light or reflective clothing that will make them more noticeable at the bus stop or walking around the neighborhood enjoying sleds or holiday lights.

Alaska book and gift shops all stock works by local writers/artists.

3. BOOKS. Give books with Alaska themes. We want to create readers in our family so there is no better way to get kids motivated to read and gravitate to books than purchasing books with subjects that they know. Alaska has many great topics that kids enjoy and there is no shortage of literary works for all age levels. Also consider a subscription to a magazine that ties in with a child's interest such as National Geographic Kids, Highlights, which I remember from my youth, and Ranger Rick.

Get kids ready for Iditarod or Fur Rondy with some storytelling.

4. GEAR. Getting outside this time of year can be challenging. Updating jackets, gloves, goggles, ice skates, skis or even the plastic sled that has been in-use for a couple of years can be a great gift.

Clothes. They'll thank you later.

5. CLOTHING. The gift of clothing. I am fortunate that our sons have no input on what they wear because of their ages. Holidays and birthdays are a great opportunity to give them something special to add to their clothing collection. For our oldest, a shirt with an NFL or college logo is something he really appreciates. With older children I would suggest you go on a shopping trip with him or her and take notes.

"Clang! Swish!" Don't forget the wrapping paper tube swords!

With the main gift-giving day looming it can be easy to just grab something quick and easy such as a gift card but a little thought can go a long ways in giving something that will be enjoyed for many days and maybe years into the future! I hope you and your family have a great holiday together.

5 Worry-Free Cookies to Make with Little Ones

LAST WEEK I brought you a post on how to loosen up and let kids help make cookies for the holiday season. This week I’m really making it easy to get little ones IN the kitchen. They are nibblers and tasters and stuff-it-in-their-mouths-when-mom’s-back-is-turned-ers and well you certainly don’t want to be yelling NO at them while making cookies and memories. And you don’t want them possibly getting salmonella from eating raw eggs either. These recipes are all egg free and perfectly okay for little hands to get into and nibble if needed. An added bonus is they taste great! Imagine the pride your little one will feel when they can give someone they love a treat they made. Good times are coming up, hold on!

1. Cookie Dough Truffles: Heck yes! Chocolate chip cookie dough you can eat, no sneaking required. I like to make my own recipe as I go along, but you're basically making a regular chocolate chip cookie dough recipe without adding the eggs. I thought going solo on a recipe might scare some folks so I've linked to one on the Food Network for you.

It's snowing powdered sugar!

2. Russian Tea Cakes: An absolute family favorite! Covered TWICE in fun-to-use powdered sugar, your little ones will love to get messy with these cookies. I use an approximation of the linked recipe from AllRecipes. If you want, you can add one cup mini chocolate chips to the dough after it’s mixed completely, then you’re making butter babies and yum oh yum.

3. Gingerbread Men: When I was thinking up this post, I was making gingerbread men and musing how fun they are as well as being egg free. I guess I was planning this as I was baking and I didn’t even realize it! The frosting for these uses raw eggs but if you follow Elise’s directions for heating the eggs for the frosting to 160˚ you will kill any bacteria and they’ll be safe to eat.

Gingerbread people make great tree ornaments, too.

4. Rice Krispies Treats: Of course these are fun to make, lots of scooping, measuring and counting work to do. My kids love these and they love to make them, too. The original recipe is the best and always use real butter!

5. Peanut Butter Snow Balls: When my boys were very little, 2 and 3, they used to make these for the Alaska State Fair. We dipped them in melted chocolate and called them wrecking balls. They won every year with their wrecking balls. This is the recipe we used and still use today. We love them and you will, too.

There you go. That’s 5 recipes to get your little ones in the kitchen and cooking with you. Have fun!

Christmas Tree Salad

MY CHILDREN ARE getting into the holiday spirit. The holiday season is full of parties, sweets and cookies, which are enjoyable and appropriate, but I was finding that my children were turning up their noses at anything healthy. Their lunches were being returned with their fruit and vegetables intact and untouched. I’ve been nagging them to finish the veggies on their plates. Then my kids started getting ill; coughing, hacking and bellyaching. I have no proof that their sickness was a result of their poor eating habits as of late, but I know it certainly didn’t improve their immune system’s ability to fight off all the germs being passed around.

I’ll do just about anything to get my children to eat healthy. I’ve been known to nag, threaten and bribe to make sure they eat right. What I’ve found that works the best though is FUN! If my children are having fun with their food, they’re more likely to eat it WITHOUT their well-intentioned mom pulling her hair out (good thing I have lots of hair). Which is why I decided it was time to have fun with our veggies that have been so lacking lately.

We got our creative juices flowing with our sugar cookies last week, and transferred that energy into making a Christmas tree with our favorite veggies. I’ve seen pictures of a broccoli “tree” made and cherry tomato “garland” to use as a veggie tray for appetizers, but I wanted to make a salad that we could serve at a meal. There’s really no “recipe,” but try to include as many colorful fruits and vegetables as possible, which will not only make your tree more beautiful, but also ensure that they’re getting a wide variety of immune-boosting vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals. The kids should be involved in the entire process (age appropriate of course), from picking out the salad fixings to slicing and dicing and, most importantly, the decorating!

CHRISTMAS TREE SALAD Here’s how our family did it, but feel free to change it up to suit your family’s tastes and creativity.

  • Bag of spring mix lettuce
  • Cucumbers, sliced thinly
  • Broccoli, cut into florets
  • Brussels sprouts, sliced thinly
  • Cherry tomatoes, sliced in half
  • Red, yellow and orange peppers, diced small
  • Cauliflower, cut into florets
  • Fresh blackberries (other ideas: frozen or fresh strawberries, raspberries or blueberries, dried cranberries or cherries)
  • Goat cheese or feta, crumbled
  • Pecans or almonds

Make the tree as big as you like. You can also make individual trees, or one large tree served “family-style” (my favorite).

We lined a tray with parchment paper, and fit our tree to the tray. Make a tree shape with spring mix lettuce. Outline the shape with overlapping cucumber slices. Top spring mix with broccoli (stems down) and Brussels sprouts. Decorate your tree with colored pepper “lights”, cherry tomato “garlands”, and fruit “ornaments”. We used Cauliflower at the bottom of tree for “snow”, pecans for the “trunk”, and crumbled goat cheese for fresh “snow” on the tree. Top it with a star made with a yellow pepper, cut with a cookie cutter.

The best thing is that my children grazed on veggies during the entire decorating process. Like licking their fingers while frosting cookies, but healthier! During serving, my kids were saying things like “Can I have more snow?” or “I want some of the trunk.” and “I want the star!” Yep. They were demanding more vegetables. No nagging required.

Being Young in Rural Alaska #10: Pros & Cons of Modern Alaskan Boarding Schools

Report no. 10: Families and students discuss the pros & cons of living and learning away from home in modern Alaska.

Reporting from: Bethel & Sitka, Alaska


HOST INTRO: This time of year, many students at Alaska’s boarding schools are heading home for winter break. Boarding schools have a long and complicated history for Alaska Natives; some blame them for loss of indigenous languages, and some students suffered abuse at schools. But these days, plenty of families choose boarding school as the best option to educate their kids.  In the next installment of our series “Being Young in Rural Alaska”, Angela Denning-Barnes speaks with some of those families.

Mt. Edgecumbe High School junior Auna Springer reads a book during lunch in the B.J. McGillis gym at the state-run boarding school. Springer, from Bethel, is the third child in her family to attend Edgecumbe. (Photo by Ed Ronco/KCAW) 


[Ambient sound - sewing...] 

[Regina Johnson] “I am working on my daughter’s ruff... my oldest daughter, Ashley.”

Regina Johnson sits at the kitchen table stitching together a long strip of hide with shiny black hair. 

[Regina] “This is actually a Russian racoon. First time working with it, first time cutting it out, which I did last night so I’m actually pretty excited.” 

Regina is hoping to get it done for her daughter when she comes home for Christmas. She’s a Senior at Mt. Edgecumbe High School, a boarding school in Sitka. Regina’s only son, Austin, is there too. 

It’s about a thousand miles from Bethel as the crow flies, with no connecting roads. But Regina knows her children are in good hands because that’s where she want to school. She left Pitkas Point at age 14. The village has about 150 residents.

[Regina] “The school was so small in Pitka’s Point and I wanted to further my education.” 

She says she not only got a better education in the classroom, but also learned to be responsible and how to take care of herself.

[Regina] “And as far as home goes, yes, you have to do the laundry, pack the water, help do the wood. It was just totally different where you had to learn to live with other people that you weren’t so used to living with at home.” 

These days, it’s a little quieter at home with her two oldest children gone to boarding school. There are just two younger ones left at home now.


Regina and Don Johnson hold a picture of their family inside their Bethel home. (Photo by Angela Denning-Barnes/KYUK)


[Ambient sound, man and child voices: “In what... ahhhh, you mistake?”]

Sitting at the same table is her husband, Don Johnson, helping their 5-year-old daughter with a word game. When she’s 14, she’ll move to Sitka too.

[Don Johnson] “All of my kids are going to go. It’s a no brainer for me.” 

For Don, it’s a family affair. He went to the boarding school as did his six siblings and his parents. Back then it was run by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. Don had a long way to move from their coastal village of Emmonak on the Bering Sea, but he says the quality of education was worth it.

[Don] “There’s a lot of students that attend Mt. Edgecumbe High School and become really successful in their lives. Look at me, in high school, I knew who I wanted to be and that was become a pilot. So ever since graduating, that’s what I’ve been doing.”

For the Johnson family, being successful doesn’t mean leaving culture behind. They still live in their home region; the kids go to fish camp at Pitkas Point every summer, and moose hunting over break – so they keep up on those subsistence skills, too. 

[Ashley Johnson] “My name is Ashley Johnson and I am a Senior from Bethel... I want to become a veterinarian. I’m going to be helping animals.” 

Ashley Johnson sits in the gym lobby at Mt. Edgecumbe High School. She’s in jeans, tennis shoes, and a black jacket, with long dark hair. She says she always knew she would go to boarding school as a freshman but the transition away from family wasn’t easy.

[Ashley] “At first no one’s going to be there for you. And you’re going to be starting out in somewhere so new, and you’re going to be lost. And this, coming to a boarding school is going to help you cope with that and it’s going to help you try to build up your self confidence and everything else like that.”

Ashley Johnson, right, walks with a friend from the B.J. McGillis gym at Mt. Edgecumbe High School in Sitka, to buildings on the upper campus, atop a nearby hill. Johnson is a senior who lives in Bethel, and one of many in her family to have attended the state-run boarding school. (Photo by Ed Ronco/KCAW)


For Mt. Edgecumbe Junior Auna Springer the decision to leave Bethel for boarding school wasn’t exactly set in stone. Two of her older siblings went, but three didn’t.  

[Auna Springer] “...and in middle school I was kind of like wishy-washy about it. And by the time I hit the 8th grade, I was like, ‘you know what, might as well go.’ It was kind of a hard decision to make because I was kind of weighing my options. I even had a little pro and con paper you know. MHS or BRHS.”

The pros won out and Auna’s been at boarding school the last two and a half years. She says she likes the busy environment:

[Auna] “If we weren’t busy we’d probably be getting into trouble or something. I mean, that’s the plus side of it. Like you have really strict consequences if you are doing something you shouldn’t be keeps you out of trouble which is really good.” 

In Bethel, Auna’s dad, Mark Springer, believes the education is top notch. Regularly, Auna travels by ferry for sporting events and she has access to the University of Alaska Southeast right next door. Another of his daughters learned Japanese at Edgecumbe and then visited the country. Mark says these opportunities are a kind of a trade for having his children leave home early. In the school year from August to May, they usually return home only once, during Christmas break. He doesn’t visit often either because it’s a full day flight and up to $900 round trip.

[Mark Springer] “...and that can be hard for some families, it’s not always easy for us. It is a long time to be away from your child.” 

[Ambient sound - stitching...] 

Regina Johnson agrees that’s tough, but she keeps close to her kids; She tries to talk them through their tough times by phone  – they call or text or Skype every day. 

[Regina] "Definitely, we communicate multiple times a day."

But mostly she sees them becoming more confident in themselves, more willing to take on challenges. She hasn’t lost that drive either. She says after all her kids graduate, she just might try to go back school herself.

With help from Ed Ronco in Sitka, I’m Angela Denning-Barnes in Bethel.

The "Being Young in Rural Alaska" reporting series airs statewide Mondays on Alaska News Nightly at 5pm or 6pm depending on your location. Go here to find your APRN station & schedule.

This series is supported by funds from the Association of Alaska School Boards' Initiative for Community Engagement program.



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"Wait, Your Kid Does That, Too?": Connecting with Other Dads

THE HOLIDAY SEASON and last month of the year present unique opportunities for people to get together and connect. Families travel outside for that once-a-year chance to be with extended family and friends. Friends who are usually too busy to connect meet for their annual gathering. Monthly events like gallery walks take on a holiday flavor that entices families to get in the spirit of the season. Oh, and there is the office party that many people feel obligated to attend, even if they find it uncomfortable.

Some Dad Bonding

This week I am away from my family which seems to get harder and harder, especially in the middle of this holiday season. I am traveling with a co-worker who has children of a similar age to our boys. In our first moments outside of our workdays, the topic that immediately comes to the forefront of our conversations is our children and our families. Over the past week of being together inside and outside of our job duties, we have talked about many family issues: discipline, the sensitivity of young children and respecting and preserving their innocence. We talk about the humorous moments. I love humor and I know it is what keeps me relatively sane as a parent.

"Is it funny if I stick this in my hair?"

We talk about those moments where our children surprise us with their observations, our intense love for them and the relationship they have with their siblings. Our discussions have also addressed the powerful connections, biological and emotional, our children have with their mothers. We talk about the differences between our reactions and dealings with our children and how that differs from mom’s reaction and often leniency we sometimes find frustrating. We also celebrate mom’s selflessness and dedication to the kids’ growth and well-being. We voice the fact that fathers and mothers contribute different things to the life and growth of children.

"Let's get together more often. Whaddaya say?"

Yes, the holidays can create some warm and lasting memories and also some uncomfortable social situations. Dads (especially) and moms, make the most of these opportunities to connect with other parents. It is amazing how quickly walls come down when I start to talk about my children. It is also comforting and empowering to know that I am not alone on this journey and my thoughts and feelings are similar to many fathers around me, but I need that little push to connect!

Be a Savvy Explorer: Visit your Alaska Public Lands Info. Center

THE WEATHER OUTSIDE may seem frightful, but with a little time and information, uneasy parents can turn cold and snowy into positively delightful. Wintertime can be a frustrating season for moms and dads, particularly those new to our Alaska weather, activities and decidedly darker days. When our family moved to Anchorage seven years ago, one of the first stops I made was at the Alaska Public Lands Information Center in downtown Anchorage.

A cooperative effort among federal, state and local recreation agencies, Alaska’s centers function as a sort of clearinghouse for information about the vast wealth of public lands, with maps, recreational permits, interesting exhibits and a healthy dose of trip-planning assistance for Alaska four-season fun.

While summer brings a lion’s share of visitors to the state’s three largest public lands centers, winter can be the perfect time to investigate the wealth of information at one’s fingertips. Looking for a great trail to try out those Nordic skis Santa left under the tree? This is the place. Need a 2013 State Park Pass? Buy now and beat the spring rush. Or, perhaps you simply need an indoor change of scenery. Exhibits, films and activities to appease all ages can be found with ease.

Each center is different, too. The Anchorage center is located in the old Federal Building on 4th Avenue, and features some pretty interesting wild Alaska animal displays and an accompanying scavenger hunt. Ask about periodic lectures about various subjects of flora and fauna, a nice treat for older kids. Admission to this center is free, and operating hours during the winter months are 9 a.m.–5 p.m., Monday through Friday.

Fairbanks Public Lands Information Center is housed in the beautiful Morris Thompson Cultural and Visitor Center, sharing space with the Fairbanks Convention and Visitors Bureau, Alaska Geographic and Tanana Chiefs Conference. Just being in the bright, open space with thousands of maps at our fingertips is tempting enough, but taking a walk through the realistic displays that depict life in the Interior regions makes this a top stop for our family whenever we’re in Fairbanks. The building is open from 9 a.m.–5 p.m. Monday through Saturday during the winter months. Admission is free.

Southeast Alaska also has a beautiful Information Center, located smack in the middle of the waterfront area of Ketchikan. The Southeast Alaska Discovery Center features a wonderful, interactive series of displays that carefully and completely cover all aspects of industry, history and ecology of the diverse southeast region. For kids, this is a big hit, whether toddler or teen, due to interesting, age-appropriate displays. Open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 10 a.m.–4 p.m., the Ketchikan center offers the fewest hours, but it’s well worth scheduling time to visit. From October to April, admission is free; otherwise, adults (age 15 and over) pay $5/per person.

Happy exploring!

Erin Kirkland is the owner and publisher of, a website dedicated to family travel and kid-friendly activities in Alaska. She lives in Anchorage with her husband and two sons.

9 Ways to Let Go and Let Your Kids Help with Holiday Baking

I LEARNED LONG ago that kids love to help make cookies. And that I needed to let them. Sure, my kitchen will be destroyed, covered in flour and someone always get mad, but the learning and the fun make it all worthwhile. I PROMISE! Usually a big batch of sugar cookies is just about right for kids to work with because it’s: make the dough, let it chill, wash the dishes, pick out cookie cutters, inspects sprinkles, roll cookies, decorate, bake, cool and eat. The rhythm of it is perfect and matches the flow of kids perfectly.

"Ho, ho, ho! Your kitchen is about to get messy!"

If the idea of cooking with kids scares you, here’s how to make it painless. Or at least more painless…is that even right?

1. Get Started - I really think sugar cookies are about the perfect cookie to make with kids–the rhythm and flow just works. If you really don’t like the idea of sugar cookies, look through a cookbook with kids and let them have input.

2. Cover Up - Give them an apron to wear even if it’s one of yours–they’ll stay cleaner and they’ll look just like mom. Call it bonding.

3. Let the Readers Read - If you have readers, by all means have them read through the recipe out loud. It’s good practice AND it’s a great way to get your ingredients out, too. Then they can read the recipe as you work through it.

4. Alternate Adding Ingredients... - Once the ingredients are gathered, begin following the directions. Start with one child and work on down the line having each child in turn add ONE ingredient for the recipe. Everyone feels included this way.

5. ...And Following Instructions - This one is a great tip if the directions say add butter and beat until creamy have ONE child add the butter and one child beat it–again everyone is included and they each learn how to execute directions. Alternate with adding the ingredients but make sure to mix it up if you only have two kids, you don’t want one adding everything while the other does everything use some parental discretion to make it work out.

6. Break Up - Teach them to break eggs and do it in a separate bowl–no shell in the dough. We have accomplished egg breakers but still use this rule. You never know what an egg will be like on the inside–we’ve had bloody spot eggs from our laying hens and YUCKY eggs from the store, so it’s a good thing to learn now.

7. Feel the Heat - Parents use the oven period. Parents carry hot pans of cookies period. Parents only get to eat the hot cookies period. (Okay, the last one is a rule in my house! HA!)

8. Be Honest (with yourself) - Just realize your house is going to be destroyed and someone will get mad—it never fails. But the memories will be worth it.

9. The Last Word - Above all, sprinkles make everything better.

Feeling advanced? Crank it up a notch with gingerbread.

A few notes: If you have a stand mixer, please remember they are a tool not a toy. Require all long hair to be pulled back. Hand washing is good, too, and nose picking is strongly discouraged.

The memories of making cookies with my mom and sister are some of the very best I have from my childhood. Perhaps that’s why I’m so very dedicated to making sure my kids have some, too.

Need a great sugar cookie recipe? We've got you covered.

Super Soft Almond-Vanilla Sugar Cookies

EVERY FAMILY HAS their favorite cookies for the holidays. Our favorite is sugar cookies. It’s a family affair: from eating the dough, to cutting out their favorite shape, to decorating with as much frosting and sprinkles as they can handle. We’ve been doing it for so many years, it wouldn’t seem like Christmas without making and decorating sugar cookies.

I’m picky about my sugar cookies. They have to be soft. They have to be thick. They have to taste great. The frosting has to complement the cookies. They have to be sweet, but not too sweet. These sugar cookies are perfect!

Mmmm, smells like Christmas!

I’m sharing with you our family’s secret recipe. Well, I guess it’s not going to be a secret any longer. I’m okay with that. Anything this simple and good is worth sharing. My mom gave me this recipe; the same one we used when I was little. I’ve added some almond extract, since our family loves almond. It’s also in the frosting, but feel free to substitute vanilla extract. Try not to eat all the dough before you get a chance to bake them! I hope these become your family favorite, too!

Get creative with your cookie accessories

Super Soft Almond-Vanilla Sugar Cookies
Makes approximately 3 dozen 3”-4” cookies

4 ½ cups all-purpose flour
2 tsp. baking powder
1 tsp. salt
½ cup shortening
½ cup unsalted butter, softened
1 ½ cup sugar
3 eggs
½ cup milk
1 tsp. vanilla
1 ½ tsp. almond extract
Frosting (see recipe below)

Preheat oven to 350˚

In a medium bowl, combine flour, baking powder, and salt. Stir well using a whisk.

In another bowl, cream together shortening, butter, and sugar using an electric mixer until light and fluffy. Add eggs one at a time, mixing well after each addition.

In a liquid measuring cup, measure the milk and add the vanilla and almond extract.

With the mixer on low setting, add some of the flour mixture to the butter mixture, then add some milk mixture. Continue alternating adding the flour and the milk until all the ingredients are incorporated.

On a well floured surface, roll out half the dough about ¼ inch thick. Cut with your favorite cookie cutters. Place 1-2 inches apart on an ungreased cookie sheet. Continue rolling and cutting, adding the other half of the dough when needed.

Bake for 8-9 minutes (the larger the cookie, the longer the baking time). DO NOT OVERBAKE. This is the key to soft cookies! Bake until the edges are stiff, but not browned. They might even look underbaked, but they will continue to cook once they’re removed from the oven. Let rest on the cookie sheet at least 5 minutes before removing to cooling rack. Let them cool completely before frosting.

Ziploc bags are a cheap and easy-to-use decorating tool

Almond Sugar Cookie Frosting
¼ cup shortening
¼ cup butter, softened
1 ½ tsp. almond extract
4 cups powdered sugar
4 tablespoons milk

Mix together the shortening, butter and almond extract with an electric mixer. Slowly add the powdered sugar and continue mixing until incorporated. Add the milk one tablespoon at a time until you get the consistency you want. Continue mixing for about 5 minutes until smooth.

Divide the frosting into small bowls and add food coloring, mixing and adding more until you get the desired color intensity.

It's Patrick Star!

Our family uses craft sticks to spread the frosting. You can also add some frosting to a small Ziploc bag, cutting a small hole in one corner, pressing to make lines and designs. We like to use coconut for “snow,” small cinnamon candies for stars and ornaments and, of course, lots and lots of sprinkles!

Happy (Hectic) Holidays

WITH CHILDREN THE lights of the holiday season are brighter. Christmas carols are more danceable. Expectations are bigger. And the list of events to do and see seems more unmanageable than ever!

"Is it him? Is he here?"

This year our management of the holidays was off to a great start. A day after Thanksgiving, eggnog replaced cream in our morning coffee. The following day, Christmas decorations were brought down from storage, and, as a family, we had our first sighting of the Jolly Man in the Red Suit who arrived at the local mall via helicopter. Three days after Thanksgiving, Christmas lights around our home put our neighborhood on notice that this family was ready to celebrate.

"It's him! It's Santa!"

Despite my best plans and intentions I have started to have small panic attacks about what else needs to be done, mailed, purchased and coordinated in the last 25 days of December.

I have not yet sent one Christmas card although friends with families are taunting me as some have already arrived in our mailbox. We have family that lives in England and their box of cheer should already be en route but it is not. I have purchased some gifts for the boys but lack a clear gift plan. I have some ideas of gifts for my partner but I am indecisive when I should be placing orders now ensuring the desired and purchased items arrive on time.

Take a family tour o' the lights in your city.

Our family has plans to take in the First Friday event in the downtown of the capital city visiting the various galleries and gift shops. This is a holiday tradition where we enjoy the hustle and bustle, holiday refreshments, carolers and a glimpse of old St. Nick! After years of talking about it to members of our family (yet to be decided), we will embark on a Holiday Lights Helicopter tour. Two members of our family will be attending the annual performance of the Nutcracker. For the first time in our Juneau experience of four plus years, I will miss the annual Governor’s Holiday Open House at the mansion on Dec. 9. Although I will be out of town, my partner and sons will be in attendance. This is a unique event that we enjoy and support whole-heartedly! Last year we finally made it to the live nativity here in town and drove through three times at the request of our oldest son. This will be on our Holiday To Do schedule this year.

Driving around town looking at Christmas lights is a fond memory I have of my youth and there are many areas throughout Juneau to participate in this activity. With the sun setting well before 4 p.m. this is an event that can be done at the end of a weekday. We do have one holiday work party to attend and we are planning a New Years Day open house at our residence for neighbors and friends.

Don't forget to sit back and enjoy it all.

Whatever the holiday event is, we do everything in our power to experience all of these activities and events as a family. Despite the moments of panic and the hustle, the family moments are what the holidays are about for us. The everlasting gift of children in our lives has made us more motivated to participate in the season. We see the lights with fresh eyes, hear the sounds with sharp ears and young curiosity makes us even more engaged in all of the activity that this month brings to our community and home.

Indoor Holiday Fun at Alaska's Museums

IT'S WEEK THREE of a pre-Christmas deep freeze, and while our family still manages to get outside for a daily dose of fresh air, I will admit to savoring the delightful variety of exhibits and activities at three Alaska museums this month. December means bright lights, beautiful music and lots of opportunities for family togetherness, and we can’t wait to get started.

Shhhh, I'm hibernating.

The Museum of the North on the University of Alaska Fairbanks campus has unveiled a new exhibit just right for our frigid weather. “Hibernation and the Science of Cold” is a fascinating look at the strategies animals use to stay warm and survive when the weather turns really, really cold. Watch “hibernation-cams” and see real-time video of animals in deep hibernation, climb into a den, and answer the all-important question: “Did dinosaurs hibernate?” This is an excellent exhibit for second graders on up, especially those with a keen interest in natural science. The Museum of the North is also hosting a Family Day on Saturday, December 8, from noon–4 p.m. Raptors are the subject of this month’s event, and kids of any age are invited to stretch their wingspans with crafts, games and an interesting story or two. Admission to the museum is $10/adults, $5/age 7–17, with kids 6 and under free.

Juneau’s Alaska State Museum is open throughout the winter months, and is quite nice to visit with kids minus hordes of cruise ship crowds. Be sure to stop by the merchant ship, “I spy” display and interesting artifacts describing Juneau’s early days of mining and tourism. While not exactly suited for smaller children, the ship is a great place to play while grownups tag team the facility with older kids. Wintertime admission is a deal, too. $3/adults 18 and over. Nice.

Reveling in the holiday cheer at the Anchorage Museum

Finally, the Anchorage Museum is kicking off a season of holiday happiness with their annual concert on Sunday, December 9. The Alaska Children’s Choir and Anchorage Concert Chorus are among the groups scheduled to perform between 1 and 4 p.m., with free admission to the museum all day, courtesy of Wells Fargo. The whole family will enjoy the Wonderland of Toys exhibit, featuring playthings from days gone by, and it’s worth the ensuing discussion with kids about ways kids used to amuse themselves before television, iPods and video games. On Sunday, December 16, everyone is invited to the museum for a Snow Day activity from 2-4 p.m. Learn about the science behind snow, try the Alaska Club-sponsored obstacle course, and create some snow-themed crafts. Good fun for all ages, preschool through high school!

Forget the cold; warm up from the inside out with these choices for indoor fun, all winter long!


Erin Kirkland is the publisher of, a website dedicated to Alaska family travel and outdoor recreation. She lives in Anchorage with her family, and is eternally grateful for handwarmers these past few weeks.

6 Gifts My Kids Have Made (and Yours Can, Too)

WE HAVE OFFICIALLY declared our plans to NOT give big shiny expensive gifts this year and instead we are giving handmade, homemade, recycled, upcycled, thrifted and, most importantly, useful items. We are thrilled, and our kids are little makers so this is right up their alley, too. Of course initially they were concerned about not getting toys and once we assured them that they would indeed get a few toys but also things they really needed they were on board, too. Our whole family has agreed to this including extended family and we are so happy. Right away the worries and the stresses of the season melted away and busy plans were drawn up. Everyone has a secret with someone else and it’s all so exciting.

I’ve been thinking through the gifts and things we’ve made together and showcased on my blog and came up with a list of gift ideas to share with you. These are all things we have done with our kids. They’ll need a bit of parental help but not much! And the pride your kids will experience in giving a gift from their hands and heart is well worth any effort you make.

Wake up, wake up, you're gorgeous!

1. Vanilla Latte Facial Scrub - This is a great gift for the coffee drinker in your life! It’s quick, easy to make, doesn’t require dusting and it smells great.

Mmmmm, bathtime.

2. Bath Bombs - Who doesn’t love a good bath? These fuzzy bubbling bath bombs don’t require much in the way of expensive or odd ingredients and they are fun to make. And to give. And to receive. Yep, pretty much perfect.

Let's make Grandpa look like a million bucks!

3. Homemade Buttons - Handmade buttons from pennies or coins from other nations make a great present for all the grandpas in your kids’ lives. Of course making and SELLING them is completely against the law but making a set to give is legal. And pretty cool. This does take some planning and probably a garage space or a basement area to work in. Not hard just needs a bit of planning on the parental end.

"Mom, are you sure I have to give this away?"

4. KoolAid Playdough - Great present-making experience for the littles in your life. A wee bit of cooking, lots of squishing and then pack it up and give it away. Perfect for little attention spans and not a lot of time.

5. Dog Toys - This is a fun gift to make. It involves a little shopping, a little cutting and a little sewing. Best of all, it’s made to be destroyed so no one is left with a dust collector afterwards.

6. Magnets - Ahhhhh, finally something to do with a puzzle that’s lost a couple pieces. Super easy and super cute. Your kids can ALMOST make these on their own.

Of course, our kids have already made all these so what they are planning this year will be new and different. Oh, the secrets!

Talking about raising Alaska's future today!

Mental Health & the Alaskan Family

Being Young in Rural Alaska





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