A batch of soft-spoken kids from a remote Alaska village on a hard-to-reach river island are in a race to raise money in hopes of visiting the U.S. Capitol, where they can lobby for rural education and bring attention to the plight of their school, which might soon close.
Set in the state's Interior in a former mining district that now offers few jobs, Gusty Michael School in Stony River, Alaska, faces a possible shutdown due to a lack of enrollment. Debi Rubera, the lead teacher in the two-classroom school, wants to make sure her 10 students get one last chance to see the world as long as she's their teacher.
The trip cuts to the heart of a central question facing Alaska and the country: With rural populations shrinking and resources dwindling, how do we give urban and rural kids an equal shot at education? That question is especially vital in Alaska's Bush schools, where students from often poor, Native families have little money to leave home and see the outside world they might one day be part of.
Remember how school field trips once impacted you? Multiply that by 10. Stony River's lead teacher and her students -- ages 5 to 14 -- plan to travel 3,500 miles to see museums, schools, and learn about jobs that don't exist in their village of 34 people. They'll take in zoos, visit the Alaska congressional delegation and, if they're lucky, perhaps even meet the president.
They've launched a Facebook page and opened the village's only grocery store to raise funds. They're hosting pizza nights and raffling off a wooden toboggan to local villagers, a sleigh for hauling cargo behind snowmachines. But they haven't raised enough.
So one of Alaska's most-read online news sites, Alaska Dispatch, has partnered with the school to help them raise money, realizing that a little hope can go a long way in a part of the world where suicides are among the highest in the nation and jobs are hard to come by.
The kids have left Alaska just once, after they raised money to travel to Santa Barbara, Calif., last year, a trip that made them media stars and the subject of a documentary film. They raised money with pizza sales and their store, but when that wasn't enough, they wrote fundraising letters seeking donations.
For most of the kids, it was the first time they'd ridden elevators, eaten at a restaurant or spoken with a college professor. They saw things they'd only seen on TV or computer screens, stuff as basic as cows, stoplights and freeway interchanges. Imagine trying to understand the world when you never get a chance to see it.
That trip changed lives. The oldest student, the lone graduate last year, rode along with California police last year, a first because Stony River has no cop. Now, he's attending college and hopes to be a state trooper. The next oldest student, who recently moved to a bigger village to attend school, fell in love with Santa Barbara and plans to enter the medical field at a community college there.
Click here to make a donation to the Stony River school fundraiser.
Please read more about Rural Alaska Dreams: Native Village Kids Hope to Lobby in DC to Save Their School.