Positively Scottish Humans of the US: Intrepid Helen volunteers to help girls in Alaska

Life in Fairbanks, Alaska, is tough. The city is in the heart of the state, remote from what urban dwellers might call civilisation. In the long, cold winters, it takes a certain type of person to live there. Helen Louise Bradley, who moved there two years ago, loves the place and has thrown herself enthusiastically into Fairbanks life. Helen, who grew up in the Saughton Mains area of Edinburgh, was so determined to get a slice of the Fairbanks experience that she spent a year in a dry cabin with no running water. She is a passionate volunteer and devotes much of her time to helping young girls grow into ‘positive’ young adults. And, in a state with high levels of violence, sexual assault and child abuse, Helen, 33, is also at the forefront of a pioneering programme aimed at preventing violence before it occurs. The early results are encouraging and Helen’s outlook is that, by volunteering, she is giving back to and helping build the community around her.

I was brought up in Edinburgh from age six and went to Abertay University in Dundee between 2001 and 2005. I lived in Dundee from when I was 18 till I moved to the US in 2010. I have a degree in forensic psychobiology. The equivalent in the US is a BSc in forensic psychology.

I then went on to work with people with mental health disorders and autism and my whole career has been working with people. I learned a lot about people and myself. I realised that my degree was achieved in class so you can read about different mental health conditions, but the reality of living with these conditions and what that means was very different. I was lucky, I worked for an organisation called Carr Gomm Scotland. They really see the potential in people and that was just a great fit for me.

Five years after I graduated, I moved to the US and lived in Burlington, Vermont, then Seattle, Washington, then I came here to Alaska.

I think I realised that volunteering helps you build community and when you move somewhere different you need to build the community around you and meet people who care about the same things you care about.

I came here as an AmeriCorps Vista volunteer which is something citizens and residents can do to help people out of poverty. I then found this project with the Interior Alaska Center for Non-Violent Living and they were trying to start a primary prevention programme. I was hired in May this year and now I co-ordinate their prevention programming.

Primary prevention is stopping violence before it’s ever on the table. So, we are working to build up resilience in the community, resilience in kids to better equip them, to make them less likely to be the perpetrator or victim of violence in the future. It’s to try and stop this happening and primary prevention doesn’t target a particular group of people. It’s not people who are already at risk, it is everyone.

You are teaching skills like how to recognise your emotions, how to identify ways to cope in your life with the goal being to create a person that is more resilient to the negative things that happen in the world. There is a lot of overlap in preventing suicide or future instances of substance abuse, mental health, and depression because you are building resilience at that real base level.

Alaska has been very forward thinking in this. Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are building the same resilience without realising it. Anyone who is a positive and caring adult in the life of a child is making a difference to that child.

Alaska has some of the highest rates of violence in the country, domestic violence and sexual assault, child abuse. There is lots of speculation why, the population is smaller so it can be hard to measure. The Alaska Victimisation Survey has been trying to measure that since 2010 and they have shown the rates are slightly decreasing which is great but they are still very high here.

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This can be a difficult place to live but part of why I am so excited to do it here is that the Fairbanks community is unique. It’s not something I’ve seen anywhere else but the strength and the resilience and the people here and how they help each other out is what excites me. I feel if anyone can reduce the rates of violence these people can, we can do it here.

Our closest big town is Anchorage and that’s 350 miles south of here. People are so friendly here, people will stop and help you out whether you want them to or not! When I first came here I admired the self-sufficiency that people had, they are very self-reliant, they take care of each other and I remember thinking ‘That’s what I want, I want to go and develop some of those skills.’

The first year I was here I lived in a dry cabin with no plumbing. I had an outhouse and hauled my own jugs of water into the house. A lot of people still do it here. I wanted to have a Fairbanks experience and live the Fairbanks lifestyle. It taught me a lot of skills: I don’t take water for granted any more, that’s for sure.

People here are tough and they help each other out. Alaskan native values are about helping each other out and if you have enough then you give to the person next to you. It’s very communal, I find.

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Another programme I do is called Girls on the Run. It’s an after-school programme where we creatively involve running. It’s a national programme but in Alaska we also evaluate it for building up protective factors which will protect girls from being future victims or perpetrators of violence.

You just don’t know what anyone is experiencing and I think that’s why primary prevention appeals to me so much. My role is to expand GOTR in Fairbanks and our goal is to have it in every school and have it so every girl has access to this programme.

It is 3rd through 5th grade girls and they love it. It’s that stage just before puberty is starting to hit and before middle school and it’s a difficult time for girls. We have a lot of feedback from people who say they have noticed their girls encouraging other girls or talking about themselves as being beautiful and unique. I think you see it quickly, the impact of the programme on the girls.

I can’t go more than a year without coming back to Scotland because then I’ll start to feel it. I miss the people the most and then I miss food.

I miss chocolate, I miss steak pies, and fish and chips, and bread…the bread here is very different.

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