Navigators: Choosing Life’s Direction

How do we support our most vulnerable youth through programming that extends beyond the classroom and home?  We know that it takes our entire community to raise our children, but what does this look like in practice today?

Navigators began as a grant-funded diversion program with Tribal Court in December of 2016, but has since become a part of the Cultural Heritage and Education Department within Tlingit & Haida to offer services to a wider range of tribal youth.  There are three main branches of the program that include the Compass Gathering, Study Groups, and Wellbriety, and the Navigator Youth are the foundation of Navigators programming.

The Navigator Youth are a group of up to 15 tribal citizen students ages 13-18 who display eligibility for the program by being in need of additional care and support.  This could mean they are experiencing high or increased exposure to drugs and/or alcohol, family homelessness, or anything else that increases their need for outside support.  Furthermore, there is a spike in chronic absenteeism between 8th and 9th grade, and this indicated to the founders of Navigators that students in this age group and experiencing this transition from middle to high school are in need of additional services.

The Navigator Youth form the group of students that attend the Compass Gatherings – a two-hour session every Tuesday night with a full family dinner and a lesson around things like healthy relationships, Native ways of living, and self-regulation.  These groups are built around the Developmental Relationships Framework, and the most important thing is that students feel connected and feel that they have the support of the adults and their peers in the group.  Renee Culp, the Program Coordinator, says that she works hard to make sure the students’ voices guide the topics for the lessons. Students have asked for anger management at one point, Native ways of living at another, and were very engaged by the lesson by Planned Parenthood and Teen Council about healthy relationships and sex education.  Ms. Culp believes the quality of the content of their lessons and the comfortability of facilitators and Teen Council members were important in making this lesson a recent highlight of the groups.

Navigators completing a Birth Control Scavenger Hunt with Teen Council/Planned Parenthood

Navigator Youth who age out are welcome to become Navigator Peer Mentors to support the younger students and to allow them to continue to have support as they complete their own transition out of high school.  Other adults in the community volunteer their time at the Compass Gatherings to be like Aunties and Uncles for the students, too, and to help create that family feeling in the room and at the dinner table every week.  This creates a broad support network at the weekly meetings and beyond which can be called upon for anything from a student who is nearing a crisis or a student who feels nervous about attending a new group.  Navigators intentionally keeps this group limited to 15 students because they want to ensure that they can consistently provide this high level of care for the teens who are involved.

Many students have already found a second home and much-needed support at Compass Gatherings and within the Navigator Youth.  Navigator Peer Mentor Eliza Hogue may have put it best when she said, “We come with our own battles and attack it together like a family.”

The Navigators Study Groups started in the Winter of 2019 are another in a long line of efforts to expand Navigators services to a larger population.  Any tribal citizen students ages 13-19 can attend these study groups that provide tutoring for common high school subjects like English and Math.  These Study Groups are fully-stocked with school supplies, brain-friendly food, and other snacks to make sure students are fed and able to focus on their homework or project.  Students are also offered raffle tickets as incentives for RSVPing to a session, attending study group, or completing schoolwork – at the moment, the prize for winning is a $25 gift card to Fred Meyer, so going to study group really pays off!

The next expansion of Navigators programming will be to offer Wellbriety classes in partnership with the Zach Gordon Youth Center and AWARE, and they are hopeful that this program will be running by the start of the 2019-20 school year.  By partnering with other organizations in the community, they expect to be able to offer this program to all youth in Juneau who need chemical dependency support.

Navigators is also hoping to expand into communities beyond Juneau in the coming years.  At the moment, Yakutat is updating the content to be specific to their community and hope to begin offering Navigators services in the near future.

Partnerships in conjunction with team commitment and dedication have been pillars for Navigators changes and successes.  When it was just getting started, the founders of the program held sessions with groups of elders to determine what it was that they felt their community really needed.  When it came to funding the program as it grew into its new place in the Cultural Heritage and Education Department, (Tribal Assistance for Needy Families) TANF and STEPS Alaska have been able to provide the bulk of the funding while other departments within Tlingit & Haida have contributed in many ways that have been instrumental to its programming but are too many to list.  Partnerships with Zach Gordon and AWARE are making it possible to offer Wellbriety to all youth in Juneau, and inviting organizations from around the community to run lessons at Compass Gatherings has enabled high-quality programming without investing time and money to duplicate curricula.

If you have any questions about the program or about how to get involved, please contact

**Content provided to the AASB by Renee Culp, Juvenile Justice Program Coordinator