2 years ago, I was invited to the remote town of Bethel, Alaska to speak to their local school, which is plagued by a teen suicide rate that’s 17 times the national average. Arranged by MTV and Taco Bell, this is the story of one of the most inspiring and eye-opening experiences of my career.
- •PrologueThe summer before, a couple friends were pranking each other, when one of 'em upped the ante and posted flyers around Bethel advertising Taco Bell was coming to town (For job inquiries, call this # (which just so happened to be the other guy’s #)). The story went viral and eventually reached Taco Bell, who played along and agreed to helicopter in a taco truck carrying 10,000 tacos. Maybe you saw the TV spot?:http://bit.ly/1FGAO4g
- •Then, a couple things happened.The local school (Bethel Regional High) won an MTV contest across 14 states and 325 other high schools to improve college readiness. As a prize, Kendrick Lamar was supposed to visit the school, but.. only Skyped in his appearance. The students reached back out to Taco Bell, asking them to help bring the rapper up north. “If you can fly in a taco truck, can’t you fly in a rapper?” Taco Bell also learned of Bethel's teen suicide problem, and wanted to help. And so...
- •Kendrick Lamar, NBA player James Harden, Taco Bell CEO (now CEO of all Yum!) Greg Creed, and I boarded a plane to Bethel, Alaska.An hour from Anchorage by plane. No roads in or out. All supplies are flown in, so toilet paper costs $30. Four restaurants in town, one of which is a Subway, the others are Korean or BBQ/Italian/Chinese (and if you’ve got a big group, your meal will clear them out of materials for a week). BTW the Subway is where you go on a date or your birthday. There are two places to generally work: the hospital and the school. They just built a movie theater, so maybe three.
- •58 tribes of Eskimo. 48 different villages.The Bethel region itself is the size of Washington. 500 students in the school, but that's K-12, and you can imagine how many hours they travel to get to class. Outside of the native population, the other half of the school is composed of kids whose parents moved here for work from the lower 48 or Hawaii. It’s obvious which kids those are.
- •Aside from suicide, there are other issues. 1) Tooth and mouth disease:Because the water isn’t properly fluoridated. Plus, the families are only allocated a certain amount of clean water that usually goes to drinking or bathing, so toothbrushing is often marginalized.
- •2) Alcoholism and rape.Even though Bethel is a “damp county” (you can’t buy or sell liquor here, but you can bring it in), alcoholism still runs rampant. And with that comes sexual violence, unfortunately. The local culture is that of openness, so much so that the natives don’t know how to lie. There’s not much of a legal system because if a lawbreaker is asked if he committed a criminal act, he will admit to it.
- •3) DrowningNobody knows how to swim, in spite of being surrounded with wet marshlands – because the water is too cold to enter. They have been working on building a swimming pool to teach the community how, but it’s taken 30 years (they’re almost done with it).
- •Uber Bethel?It’s rare to see vehicles. The town isn’t that big and because it's difficult to start up a car in -70 degrees F, people take cabs everywhere. Some of the cool kids drive ATVs. I don’t remember if I saw a paved road. The world is blanketed with snow and ice during the winter months, otherwise, it’s muddy and wet. There are no rocks in this region of the world so when they first imported gravel, people ran out into the streets and collected them like treasure. They had never seen rocks before.
- •Yes. I said NEGATIVE SEVENTY DEGREES.In one of the classes, a senior told me she’d been accepted to Stanford, but was hesitant to go because it’s so hot. I told her she was confused, because Palo Alto’s generally cooler. You know, “like the 70s.” The students gasped. I said, "You guys, that's like room temperature." They said it's different. It's contextual. "When you go outside, you expect to be cold." It was about 20, 30 degrees while I was in Bethel. Most these kids were in T-shirts.
- •And yet, Bethel kids are just like you and I.One of the boys I talked to basically lived in a tent along a stream, yet when he gets to campus, he can log onto the Internet. Culturally, these kids are relevant. Remember, they were the ones asking Kendrick visit them, and this was 2 years ago. But they were also different in that they weren’t as spoiled as the kids back home. Because I work around so many teens, I’m used to the typical entitlement. But these students were respectful and well-spoken. Confident. Pure. And honest.
- •EpilogueThat confidence. I wish I could explain this better. I couldn’t find a hint of insecurity in this place. No toughguys or mean girls. Maybe it’s because the community is so tight, watched another grow - that everyone knows each other and treats all as family. Not sure, but I wish all kids could be like this. Even in the face of so much pain and tragedy, they were full of love and hope. When I got onstage, I told them "Anyone, anywhere, can do anything." The flight home didn't seem so long.