I came out to New Mexico in 2008 in search of an adventure. I had never been to New Mexico before, and as I drove west from Albuquerque towards Gallup I was in awe of the natural beauty that shone through the red rocks and the way the sun danced off the faces of the mesas, lighting up the different colors of orange and red and setting the sky on fire. I didn’t know what to expect, but I was eager to find out more about the people and youth I would serve as a pre-algebra teacher at Thoreau Middle School.
As a corps member with Teach For America, I was able to help my students grow tremendously in their math skills, and by the middle of my second year, I saw an average of 30 percent growth in my students’ skills. But just as I was beginning to see this growth and really feeling comfortable with classroom management, one of my students ended his life. It was so tragic to lose him, but even worse to find that he was not the only one. Within six months, 14 other teenagers had taken their lives, and it seemed like almost every day my students were asking, “Ms. Ko, what’s the point? Why should I live?”
This experience turned my life upside down. I was grief-stricken and in shock. This was not the adventure I was expecting.
As a new teacher with little experience in the region or with Native people, I didn’t know that completed suicide was 72 percent more common among North American Indigenous people than among the general US population. I didn’t know that there were already resources dedicated to my community and students for suicide prevention. I didn’t know that what I thought was an anomaly was actually part of a horrific trend studied and targeted by the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration of the federal government.
Due to the crisis, resources poured in from the state, federal and tribal levels, providing programs to help in the short-term, but it seemed like very little was being done to prevent youth suicide in the long-term. For me, this was unacceptable. In the classroom, I listened to my students talk about what they wanted in their community. I talked with and listened to other veteran teachers and to staff workers at the school. I talked with and listened to parents and to people I met at the corner store. Through all of those conversations, it seemed like everyone was saying the same thing.
In Thoreau, there were no libraries or computer labs outside of school. There were no safe public places for kids to gather and socialize with positive adult supervision. No homework help outside of school tutoring, no enrichment activities or community gardens. There were no gyms or fitness opportunities. As everyone said, there just wasn’t a lot to do.
While we’re still working on expanding our programs, the Thoreau Community Center has now been operating for over three years, providing many positive activities for youth and families, including after-school tutoring and enrichment activities, access to counseling and a variety of programs relating to health, well-being, education and recreation. We have hosted skateboarding competitions to engage with youth, provided GED classes and hosted summer reading programs.
As a community effort, our organization is sustained by a variety of partnerships with other organizations, the county government and foundations. New Mexico Community Foundation was one of the first foundations to support our work and it continues to support our work today. As none of our community board of directors or staff had much experience with nonprofits, NMCF helped us think about how we could sustain our organization and learn how to reach resources we didn’t know existed.
In addition to their technical support, we received the NMCF’s Chispa Award in 2012 for our accomplishments with few resources. We also are currently partnering with the foundation for an anti-hunger project that incorporates a greenhouse and community garden into our after-school and community programs and helps to build capacity within our staff.
Without the help of NMCF, it is doubtful that we would be where we are today. We have reached over 5,000 community members through our programs and continue to think about how we can reach more people and further our mission to inspire hope, joy and progress.
Juliana Ko is the founder and former executive director of the Thoreau Community Center.