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Recognizing Amazing Young Women is the YWCA Alaska Way

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IMG_7310On Saturday, when the sun was shining so brightly it inspired many to wear shorts and engage in yardwork, YWCA Alaska packed Cyrano’s Playhouse to honor ten amazing young women for the remarkable accomplishment of fulfilling YWCA’s mission of “eliminating racism, empowering women, and promoting peace, justice, freedom, and dignity to all.”

Ask any concert promoter how difficult it is to capture Alaskans inside when the sun is out and you will start to understand one thing: it is hard. Borderline impossible. But, taking in the filled theater hall, event organizer Kate O’Brien was all smiles.

Twenty-five years ago, in 1989, Sharon Richards founded an independent chapter of the YWCA designed to specifically address the unique issues facing Alaskan women. The Last Frontier is home to staggering statistics for rape, suicide and income inequality among women, often landing us in national headlines. Each statistic represents a traumatic change in the life of someone’s mother, sister, aunt or wife. Rather than endlessly complain, Richards decided to do something about it.

Her legacy is a ten member staff of passionate individuals, led by Hillary Morgan, who have completely bought into the vision promoted by YWCA. That passion goes a long way.

Recognizing that everyone cannot visit their office on 5th Avenue, a lot of YWCA programming is structured out in the community. A budgeting class is scheduled at the Loussac Library on May 12. Title Wave Books is the location for a social justice class on May 16. So, the Young People of Achievement Awards being held at Cyrano’s Playhouse, a resident theatre company, is par for the course.

“Sometimes it feels chaotic,” O’Brien said. “We’re going in so many different directions. Our data measurements change from department to department so that we can determine to ourselves if we are being effective or not. Things have evolved over the years.”

O’Brien carries the lofty title of “youth empowerment coordinator.” She has a huge footprint in Anchorage-based youth programming circles, where she keeps a keen eye out for talented young women. She found one of this year’s awardees, Calesia Munroe, inside the downtown P.O.W.E.R. Teen Center teaching poetry to others. Last year the teen turned down the opportunity for recognition. This year, she welcomed it.

“In order to fulfill the mission of the YWCA we can’t exclude young women,” O’Brien said. “This is how they develop value in themselves. We have to start young building healthy relationships with them.”

That’s been the YWCA’s goal for the last 15 years. Award winners are usually assisted by some adult community advocate, who helps the young person navigate the application process.

The process is highly competitive. To be selected, youth between the ages of 16-18 years who live within the Anchorage/Mat-Su area must communicate their biography. In two pages, each applicant explains how she embodies the mission of the YWCA by overcoming a major obstacle in life. Many of those obstacles are burdens no one of any age should have to shoulder, like family members descending into mental illness due to poverty, illiteracy and refugee status.

Their goals are simple. Manal Sharife, an East High student from war-torn west Darfur, Sudan, wants to be the first person

Manal Sharife poses with her YWCA Award.
Manal Sharife poses with her YWCA Award.

in her family to graduate high school. Cindy Lee, a Hmong student at Chugiak High, wants to feed people after working in a restaurant to keep her family financially afloat. Rochelle Edwards wants to break stereotypes afflicting bi-racial individuals. Brynn Johnson has a future in motivational speaking/workshops; inspiring young people to dig deep and see the opportunity embedded in the challenge before them. Dee Yang wants to be a writer so that she can find the words to help tell other people’s stories.

The biography must be accompanied by a reference letter, written by an adult. Then the applications are processed by an all-volunteer committee, which takes the task seriously. Because of the emotion expressed in some of the biographies, various committee members become passionate in their defense of why one young person should receive an award over another.

“Some of these girls are not getting recognized elsewhere in the community. We want the community at large to know that we have amazing young people in Anchorage. This is our way of giving them a platform,” said O’Brien.

This year offered a platform filled by ten truly inspiring young women, whose presence in our community benefits us all immeasurably.