YWCA recognizes Kiana teen for her resilience
Before Ivory Gerhardt-Cyrus left Kiana to board a plane to Anchorage last week, her dad slipped a bracelet into her bag. It had an inscription she didn't see until after she was far from home.
Ivory, 17, her younger sister Isabella, and her adoptive mother, Jeanne, were traveling from the village to the big city so she could stand on stage at the Alaska Center for the Performing Arts alongside other youth being recognized for their achievements by the YWCA Alaska.
"You are one of the extraordinary young people in Alaska who rose to our challenge by describing major obstacles you have overcome in your life," wrote YWCA's Joanna Schultz in an award letter to Ivory, who was named one of five young recipients of the 27th annual Women of Achievement and Youth Awards and the first ever from outside the Anchorage area.
As part of her nomination, Ivory had to write three personal essays including a short autobiography, a description of the most challenging obstacles she's overcome, and an explanation of what she has done to eliminate racism, empower women, and "promote peace, justice, freedom, and dignity."
Ivory grew up in Kiana. Throughout her early childhood, she struggled in school and in social groups.
She was born with Fetal Alcohol Spectrum Disorder and has had to work through behavioral challenges linked to having a disability.
"Being a kid, I don't remember much," she said.
She does remember being misunderstood at times. Sometimes she'd even get sent home after incidents in the classroom.
On the worst days, she can recall adults getting physical with her at school and leaving her in rooms by herself for long periods of time after an outburst.
"To be restrained by an adult that's twice your size is child abuse and to be secluded is to drive a person crazy," she said.
In middle school, after a string of hard years, Ivory became her own solution. She started talking openly about her experiences and advocating for students like her having trouble in school.
"I wouldn't ever want my nieces or any other students to go through what I had to go through or be scared of school," she said.
In 2009, the U.S. Government Accountability Office started a national study of the use of restraint and seclusion in schools and found hundreds of cases of alleged abuse around the country.
Two years later, the Keeping All Students Safe Act, covering two separate proposals to protect students from restraint and seclusion, went before Congress.
Ivory was one of the students who testified in favor of the bills.
"Ivory is this leader who has an ability to use her talents and to speak out even when things are really hard and also to view things from multiple perspectives to help other people who don't have the opportunities she has," said Claudia Plesa, a project coordinator for youth engagement with the Alaska Network on Domestic Violence and Sexual Assault, who wrote a letter of recommendation for Ivory.
"That is really, really amazing to be able to hold your own experience but then everybody else's and think about how to make a positive impact even when things are hard," Plesa said.
Since becoming an advocate, Ivory has put her energy to use in myriad ways, including founding the OPT in Kiana youth group, which stands for 'Doing One Positive Thing every day.'
"I know what it is like to not be popular, not to be picked, and to be bullied by other kids and adults. We want all youth to get a chance to do things, whether they are popular or not, even if they have disabilities or behavior issues," said Ivory.
She also started doing job training in town with Lee's Sea Air, became a statewide FASD 101 trainer, self-advocated at her school, started taking college-level courses, and has made the honor roll several times in a row. She now hopes to go to college and become an Aircraft Maintenance Technician.
"All of a sudden, it was a total transformation. She had purpose, she was giving back, and people then saw her as a go-to person," said her mother, Jeanne. "She's never gotten many services and she's gotten minimal counseling over the years. When we had the FASD waiver she had a mentor, briefly. But she has gotten so much mentoring on the job. She's learned to do so many things and she's learned so many work skills and she's had the opportunity to be a valued, contributing member of the community and that has been huge."
Earlier this year, Ivory even presented at the PacRim Conference on Disabilities and Diversity in Honolulu.
Having been by her daughter's side throughout her journey, Jeanne said it was hard not to cry as she watched her walk onstage to get her award.
"I was in tears the entire time she was up there and afterwards. I was overwhelmed," Jeanne said. "To me, it was validating, all that she's been through and all that she has accomplished, having that recognized was very, very powerful. I've always known it but having it recognized by other people and an organization like the YWCA was very validating."
She said sometimes the most profound thing someone can do is recognize the value that another person has and see them for who they are.
"Ivory's matured so much because she's had more successes. When you expect you're going to fail, you think 'let's get it over with,'" Jeanne said. "Success breeds success and failure unfortunately breeds failure. So much of what we need to do is help kids be successful so they know what that feels like and they're comfortable with it rather than sabotaging it or giving up."
That's one of the reasons it was important to have her family with her in Anchorage. While her mother and sister were there to celebrate, her dad had to stay in Kiana, which is where his bracelet comes in.
Jeanne said he bought it as a present for Ivory when he found out she'd be getting this award.
On her trip she found it tucked in her backpack with an inscription reading, "She needed a hero, so she became one."