Shining a light
(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)
Community worker wins national award for efforts against suicide
Alastair Lee Bitsoi
THOREAU, N.M., July 14, 2011
(Special to the Times - Donovan Quintero)
Little did she know that her decision to share her gift would bring her face to face with tragedy in an impoverished Navajo community, and become a test of her faith and values.
Ko is the daughter of a community college teacher and a South Korean immigrant who arrived with little money and, through sheer determination and hard work, rose to become manager of a grocery store in South Florida.
She majored in economics and minored in Asian studies, political science and Spanish at Principia College in Elsah, Ill.
Immediately after her graduation in 2008, she left for New Mexico to begin a two-year stint with Teach for America, which recruits highly motivated college graduates to teach in areas where many students are disadvantaged and at high risk to drop out.
Ko was directed to Gallup, where she attended a TFA job fair and was hired on the spot to teach mathematics at Thoreau Middle School starting that fall.
"I was very interested in being in the rural setting and interested in working with Native Americans," Ko said.
Her image of New Mexico was admittedly influenced by childhood memories of Wile E. Coyote and the Road Runner, but she quickly discovered a more realistic version in Thoreau.
"I always had respect for the people who were first here," she added, and she was acutely aware that the U.S. educational system is failing many young people.
"It's not good as it should be," Ko said. "That's why I joined TFA. Our people are the most reliable source. We need to cherish and nurture their talents."
Her values and philosophy are based on the principle of equality, deriving from her knowledge of Christian theology, discipline from her parents, and the patriotic spirit of living the American dream.
"I consider myself a patriot and love the United States," said Ko, whose mother is Anglo. "Everything we're founded on is incredible. Sometimes equality is not as equal as it should be. Education opens opportunities ... you have to take advantage of every opportunity out there. That's the American dream."
She said her father - "the hardest-working person I know" - instilled in her a sense that you must act in order to improve things.
"You change the situation, you don't just wait around for something to happen," Ko said. "The idea of equality, I guess my faith is part of that. We're all children of God, and in that sense we're equal. For me that is fundamental. That covers everything in my life."
Then things started happening that put her values to the test.
From tragedy to hope
During her second year at Thoreau a slew of youth suicides occurred, including one that touched her personally.
"The first suicide was in October 2009 and that was one of my students," Ko said. "That changed my life."
The victim was a 13-year-old boy, who struggled with school and a dysfunctional family.
His suicide was followed by 14 more in and around Thoreau. In all, 15 suicides were reported in Eastern Navajo between 2009 and 2010.
During that dark time, Ko said, the suicides impacted her students so much that some talked about whether it was worthwhile to live anymore.
"That shook me and I thought something needed to be done," she said. "I didn't want to go to another funeral."
When her two-year service commitment to TFA ended, Ko faced a choice. She could return to mainstream America, her resume nicely enhanced by two years in the trenches of poverty, and get a job in business or industry. Or she could stay and use the experience she had gained to help Thoreau.
Ko chose to stay and fight the roots of the suicide epidemic. With the help of local leaders and community members, she founded the Thoreau Community Center last summer in an unused building behind the post office. The 2,700-square-foot blue stucco building formerly housed a coop, but had been empty for some time.
Its mission is to "inspire hope, joy, and progress within Thoreau and the surrounding areas by providing resources and special programs focused on health/wellbeing, education, and recreation. Through this supportive and loving environment the Thoreau Community Center seeks to encourage youth and adults to engage in positive activities to uplift the community at large."
Working with the with the Boys and Girls Club of the Diné Nation, the Navajo Nation's Office of Youth Development, New Mexico State University Extension Cooperative and the National Indian Youth Project, Ko is developing a full-service program for young people in need of friendship and something constructive to do with their free time.
The center currently offers a nutrition class, weekly movie nights, and works in partnership several established programs to create a safe and positive after-school environment for youth, an internship and career program, and volunteering opportunities.
In the near future, the center plans to offer community counseling services, dance and fitness classes, field trips, recreation room, gym and adult literacy classes, among other programs.
Ko still remembers the one she could not save, and wonders if the death metal music he loved merely reflected his state of mind, or if it contributed to it.
"To get rid of darkness, you turn on the light and bring in love," said Ko, adding that she's excited about starting the Digital Ambassadors Program, which would pair youth with elderly for computer training.
She said the new program would allow for interaction between the youth and elderly, showing the youth that adults do care and love them.
The power of action
On June 8, Ko was awarded the 2011 Service Impact Award for her efforts, given by the Corporation of National and Community Service at the National Conference on Volunteering and Service in New Orleans.
She was selected out of 150 nominees for the national award.
"This is national service at its best," stated Robert Velasco II, acting CEO of the CNCS in a press release. "The work being done everyday by individuals like Juliana Ko shows how the power of service can transform communities and be the solution to pressing local challenges across the nation."
At the conference, Juliana participated in panel discussions on first lady Michelle Obama's Let's Move In Indian Country campaign, which is dedicated to reducing childhood obesity within a decade.
Ko also networked and connected to a member of AmeriCorps Vista who was willing to come to Thoreau and help out. In addition, Thoreau community member Erick Sanders is volunteering his time at the center.
Tammy Morgan, a former IHS health promotion specialist, came aboard as associate executive director of the Thoreau Community Center, and praises Ko's initiative.
"It's tremendous what she's doing," said Morgan, a Crownpoint native who will eventually take over the reigns as TCC executive director.
"She's worked hard and has gained respect from the Navajo Nation, Navajo Department of Behavioral Health Services, and other partners," Morgan said. "I'm learning a lot from her."
Up to now, Ko has been busy generating funds to keep the center open through fundraising efforts and applying for grants to help maintain the center's services.
"We've done a lot so far and our intent is to continue this long into the future to be a permanent place," she said. "Support of any kind is appreciated."
She said McKinley County has been very helpful since the beginning. The county provided $60,000 to open the center and this year provided $20,000 to help operate it. The center has yet to receive any funding from the Navajo Nation, but has received support from tribal leaders.
"Around this time last year, it was just an idea," Ko said. "Now, its open. We have so many people donating and volunteering. It's pretty incredible when you think about it."
To her knowledge, there have been no reports of suicides since the opening of the community center.
"There's a lot here that my students were going through and I had to at least help them," she added. "I wanted them to know they had options, and that people cared about them. To me, it's the most important thing. God puts us in places for a reason."
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