By Gerald Patsy
I was born and raised in Nulato, an Alaskan village along the Yukon river about 350 miles west of Fairbanks with a population of 270. A member of the Koyukon people, I lived with my Grandmother from the time I was four years old.
As a young child and early teenager, I was very quiet and shy. While I felt comfortable around the people I knew, I found speaking in front of strangers to be very frightening. I didn’t want to be disrespectful and I knew I needed a push to get me out of my shell. My shyness was holding me back and affecting my ability to shine.
Then in 2008, when I was in 7th grade, I had a life-altering experience. My school hosted a Phlight Club – an interactive youth leadership and empowerment experience – that required me to spend 3 days and nights away from home, participating in Connecting Activities with peers and adults. Not only was I skeptical, I was scared!
On the first day, I met Derek Peterson, the leader of Phlight Club. He was talkative and friendly and had a way of making me feel comfortable. We connected. And, through that connection, he encouraged me to join in on the activities.
By the second day, I was getting it. I surprised myself. I was learning how to create a “web of support,” comprised of at least five caring adults (Anchors) who would help me weave a strong, secure web. I learned how to identify and measure seven key factors that would help me grow and thrive. I was opening up and feeling more confident.
By the end of the third day, I saw myself and the world around me differently. I felt optimistic and resilient. I wasn’t the same shy kid I had been three days earlier. From deep inside of me, I could feel a leader emerging. I knew I wanted tocontinue being a part of Phlight Club and work with Derek, and I couldn’t wait to apply what I had learned into my everyday life.
Over the next eight years, I attended more than a dozen Phlight Clubs – first as a participant and eventually as a chaperone and then a leader. Each time, I learned something new about myself. I connected with Anchors, including Derek and my Grandma, who acted as role models to guide and support me.
I got involved in my community, taking on leadership roles in my school, region, and beyond. I became an Anchor for younger kids. I embraced my culture by working to preserve the Athabaskan language through native songs.
In March of 2014, I received the Chief Andrew Isaac Youth Leadership Award. Later that year in October, as a youth representative to the Tanana Chiefs Conference executive board I received the Alaska Federation of Natives’ Roger Lang Youth Leadership Award. Nominees for the awards had to be young men of high school age or students in college who demonstrated exceptional leadership qualities.
Phlight Club changed me. I’m now a happy 22-year-old, living and thriving in Fairbanks where I’m working full-time and planning to continue my higher education. My web of support is stronger than ever, I am connected to people, and I feel loved and supported. And, yes, I’m still a Phlight Club leader, helping other shy, timid kids to blossom.