On her sixteen birthday, Alyssa Toce Blount, a sophomore from a tiny town in northeastern Montana wrote this letter to the world on Facebook:
“Life is full of mysterious things and is unexplainable. Today I’m turning 16 years old, this is where the whole “becoming of age” thing comes around. But isn’t it so weird how you can just grow up? Gee, I remember when I was 10 years old thinking to my younger self ’wonder what I’m going to do when I’m this age’. I sure as heck didn’t think I would have a job, be saving up for a car, worrying whether or not my grades are good, studying for a driver’s license, be thinking about college and how I would manage myself in a few years on my own. In other words, being and acting my age.”
This passage might seem like a typical teenage musing, but Alyssa is far from typical.
I first met Alyssa two years ago during a public service announcement (PSA) project designed to get youth talking publicly about suicide, bullying, and the impact on youth whose family is addicted to meth.
The project was led by Carrie Manning, Fort Peck Tribes’ youth program specialist. A foster mom and recovering meth addict clean for over a decade, Carrie has experienced the cycle of desperation and violence fracturing families and communities.
After a string of suicide clusters in 2016, the tribes hired Carrie to design a youth-driven, reservation-wide leadership program to empower young people to generate positive change in their towns, share their personal struggles without fear of stigma, and provide tools for peer support.
“Generational trauma has taken far too many lives”, Carrie said during our first meeting. “Too many youths feel they have no one to turn to, many choosing to end their life silently and alone. The worst thing we can do is keep things hidden.”
On a chilly fall morning in a tiny town of three hundred, I sat in the only unoccupied room in the school. The fluorescent light flickered and hummed in a small cement block tutoring room with a kindergarten-sized table, and kindergarten-sized chairs. High school students, shuffled in one at a time to share their experiences with me.
Wearing Cyndi Lauper boots, tight jeans, and a braid draping down her plaid button-down shirt, Alyssa slid her 5’ 7” thin frame into the chair, wrapping her right leg tightly around her left, her foot twitching.
Slowly, she let down her guard sharing how her mom, who was on meth, had abandoned her and her siblings in a big city. She got silent for a moment. “We now live with my aunt and grandma.”
She shared how she used to pound her hand into ice-hard ground angry at the world, but her aunt was teaching her that she must forgive her mom if she wants to heal. That story became the foundation for one of the PSA’s.
Two months later, during a radio interview featuring the public service announcements, Alyssa and her sister spoke about their mother’s addiction, the brokenness they felt after being abandoned, and their path toward healing. They giggled. They cried. They shared their inspirations. They spoke of their anger. The radio host was stunned at their compassion and maturity. After the show, the station manager came into the booth. “Thank you”, he said, tears welling. “How do we, as adults, not know this? We need you to help us heal.”
Her recent birthday missive continued:
“… it took me three whole years to finally accept that this life I have, is my life. I know now deep within me I have a family that is more amazing than I’d ever hoped for. This Family I have is a part of me that can never be taken away from me unless I decide to rip myself away from them. I know what it feels like to be ripped away and abandoned, and let me tell you I hated it, and I don’t plan on that anytime soon. It hurts too much.”
Alyssa is one of Fort Peck Tribe’s success stories. She’s an honor’s student striving to be her class valedictorian. She’s started one business and is preparing for college. Excited to no longer be the “shell of a child” she was just two years ago, she candidly speaks about the pain of youth who’ve been abandoned or lost their families to addiction. She believes in the importance of breaking the silence code of hiding secrets that are destroying her people.
Instead, she advocates giving youth opportunities to speak out believing that when previously taboo issues are shared publicly individuals, families, and communities have an opportunity for greater healing.
After reading her birthday post, I reached out to Alyssa to find out what made the difference for her to let go of her fear and speak so confidently. “Carolyn,” she said with a TV host’s ease. “Speaking publicly showed me I could help other teens and young kids, and that adults cared what I had to say”.
For so many youth like Alyssa, being listened to meant she mattered, being heard publicly acknowledged her voice and her story mattered. “When it’s more public”, she states, “it’s out there. Adults can hear our pain and our hurt. Hearing it hopefully opens their eyes a lot more to say, ‘Hey, all these kids are doing drugs and alcohol because they don’t have anybody to lean to.’”
“Youth need to talk about their own grief,” said Alyssa’s aunt, Angie Toce Blount. “They need to believe they can have a better life. Adults are so lost in their own despair. Getting youth to speak can, hopefully, give them that chance.”
I wondered, if respectfully speaking about issues within their communities made such a difference, why are so few programs giving youth this opportunity to grow and heal?
To get a better understanding, I surveyed dozens of youth and adults from regions across America, asking them about their community’s willingness to let youth speak openly about issues impacting their region.
Most young people stated that “No one listens to us. They don’t understand the issues we face.” Adults echoed their sentiments. One mother’s response reflected the protective view of many parents in towns with few resources, “It’s hard as parents to hear that our children are struggling and have no tools to help them. We feel culpable and totally inept.”
Donovan Archambault, a motivational speaker, comedian, and social worker, takes a different view. “The only thing we’re [Native Americans] number one at is destroying ourselves. We’ve got to break that chain by talking about the pain of family trauma, addiction, abuse, sexuality, acceptance and neglect and bullying.”
In a time when feelings of isolation, worthlessness and despair are leading to terrible consequences, leaders like Carrie Manning are determined to break the cycle of youth despair by giving rural youth a platform to share their experience and educate adults about the struggles they face. There are powerful lessons to be learned from organizations and communities who have witnessed the devastating effects of trauma and believe youth have wisdom that adults need to hear.
Alyssa’s words speak so clearly to the issue at hand, “If more rural children had a person to help them, and adults to listen, a lot of kids would end up growing to be an awesome person. I don’t want to be another statistic. I want our generation to be different.”
To find out more information about Carrie Manning and the NDO (Nakona Dakota Oyate) Youth Council, contact Spotted Bull Recovery Resource Center at (406) 768-5364