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Ilisagvik brings healthy workshops to villages

April 3rd, 2015 | Charlotte Ambrozek Print this article   Email this article  

Would you ever turn down the opportunity to apply for a grant? Diana Solenberger, the Cooperative Extension Coordinator at Ilisagvik College certainly wouldn't.

When a call went out last year about an opportunity to bring a VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) member to tribal colleges and universities around the country, Ms. Solenberger didn't waste any time. She said: "I'd been wanting to expand the Cooperative Extension program to serve the villages for as long as I've been in the position. As a one-person department, we could only be in one place at a time. Working with a VISTA means that we can reach out to the whole Borough!" The next step was to find an individual who would be a good match for the program and for Barrow. The search was surprisingly brief. After a few weeks, Charlotte Ambrozek, out of Vermont, accepted the position. Now on the North Slope, Ms. Ambrozek is settling in to her new role as Ilisagvik's first VISTA.

On January 24th, at the Meade River School's monthly Farmer's Market in Atqasuk, students from the Meade River School and community members surrounded Charlotte as she demonstrated an Asian-inspired cabbage salad that included apple and crunchy ramen croutons. At the end of the afternoon, all the samples were gone, and many people had come back for seconds or to take some to share with family. Ms. Ambrozek was buoyed by the success of the event. "It was so exciting to see people eating and enjoying salad," she said. "You know, it took me less than 15 minutes to prepare this batch, and there's no cooking required! All of the ingredients can be found in grocery stores across the North Slope, so it's accessible and easy for anyone to make. "

Charlotte returned to Atqasuk for the March Farmer's Market to share another recipe and even more fun. The VISTA program will continue to be on the road, with cooking events planned for Point Hope and Wainwright. The workshops are gaining momentum gradually, which Ms. Ambrozek thinks bodes well for the project. "In the long run, what we're trying to do is make a subject that tends to be viewed as burdensome - nutrition and cooking - more fun, while encouraging healthy choices that are still affordable, accessible, and tasty."

While the VISTA program is focused on cooking, Ms. Ambrozek is also bringing her love of plants and past experience with farming to the North Slope. In partnership with Samuel Simmonds Memorial Hospital's (SSMH) Diabetes Prevention program, Cooperative Extension has set up Tower Gardens at the Senior Center, Wellness Center, and at the College in Barrow.

These gardens, housed in moveable towers complete with lights, water, and plant food, will grow greens for public consumption and raise awareness of different kinds of healthy plant foods. Only a month old, the plants are already thriving and will soon be ready for taste testing. Laura Thomas, a permanent part time instructor for Cooperative Extension and part of SSMH's Diabetes Prevention team, summarizes the Tower Garden initiative. "We are trying to get people to feel more comfortable with edible plants, and give community members a no-barriers-to-entry way of tasting and harvesting plants."

Cooperative Extension isn't limiting its work with plants to Barrow. In conjunction with a cooking class planned for Atqasuk at the end of March, Charlotte will be visiting elementary and middle school classrooms to lead a workshop on building miniature greenhouses, similar to the ones made during Family Fun Day in Barrow this January.

The culmination of Cooperative Extension's annual programming is Circus Camp. Circus Camp literally takes the show on the road, bringing experienced circus instructors to four communities each year for week long summer camps. The program has been running for six years. Circus Camp teaches youth and young adults ages 5-25 skills from the Big Top including trapeze, aerial silks, juggling, tossing, spinning, twirling, balancing, stilt walking, partner acrobatics, and circus art. Although the program targets ages 5-25, "we've had ages 0 to 68 at Circus Camp," Ms. Solenberger said.

For the youngest participants there is an Imagination Library story circle as part of daily camp activities. At the end of the week, to show off their new skills, all camp participants put on a show for the community.

Last summer, there were about 225 Circus Camp participants from Anaktuvuk Pass, Barrow, Point Lay, and Wainwright. This summer, Circus Camp will be in Barrow, and bring the fun to Nuiqsut, Atqasuk, and Kaktovik.

Whether you choose to tumble around during Circus Camp, test out your green thumb with a miniature greenhouse, or whip up a tasty treat at a cooking workshop, Ilisagvik Cooperative Extension has a range of activities to offer. As Ms. Solenberger says "If we can find someone to teach it, we can offer it!"

If you live on the North Slope and are interested in having a cooking class or mini-greenhouse demonstration in your community, or for more information about the VISTA program and Ilisagvik Cooperative Extension, contact Charlotte Ambrozek at 852-6308 or


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