“Every action counts and creates a ripple effect; choose wisely,” states the theme of a 2017 youth conference organized by OPT In, a youth group in the rural village of Kiana (ky-ANN-uh). Group founder Ivory Gerhardt-Cyrus explains to listeners, in a recent episode of KNOM’s Story49, that the theme “shows you can make a difference. Negative or positive, either way, you’re making a difference.”
The new social group has given youth in Kiana a platform to encourage each other to be their best, despite the region’s high rates of suicide, domestic violence, sexual assault, and substance abuse. Even the organization’s name is a source of encouragement: OPT In stands for “One Positive Thing,” the group’s mantra of doing at least one good deed each day.
OPT In’s philosophy springs from its origins: a series of teen nights in Kiana that addressed issues with which rural Alaska youth grapple, such as bullying or family members who abuse alcohol. Over time, the group meetings grew beyond their start as a “safe space” for teens facing challenges; the group began to influence their community to make a difference and to treat each other with compassion. Ivory’s group decided to host a special youth gathering for Kiana teens; this year, they expanded their efforts into a regional youth conference — and the impact was profound.
The gathering rallied youth to be mindful about how their actions can impact others, the potential of positive encouragement, and the importance of openly talking about their problems — especially in moments of despair, or if thoughts ever turn to suicide.
Through this and future conferences, OPT In aims to ripple positive life changes throughout the region: not just with young people who are already accomplished, but — especially — with those who may be struggling. “We’re not (only) looking for people who have ‘arrived,’” says Jeanne Gerhardt-Cyrus, Ivory’s mother and a key contributor to OPT In. “Everybody has something to offer,” Jeanne adds.
The group’s impact, and its welcoming spirit, can be seen in the advice through which this year’s conference attendees summarized their experience, talking to KNOM. “Choose kindness,” one said. “Keep a good mindset and focus on your goals,” said another. “Do what you can to help people,” said a third.
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Image at top: Producer Lauren Frost (right) poses for a “selfie” with one of the members of OPT In Kiana, middle school student Shaedyn Barr. Photo courtesy of Ms. Barr.