All posts by Leah Renaud

Leah Renaud

About Leah Renaud

My Name is Leah Renaud.. I am a Senior journalism student studying Public Relations/Graphic Design at Creighton University. Driven by a desire to learn and gain new insight, I learn by doing and therefore am constantly working on my design, writing, and public relations abilities. A proud BlueJay fan, Internet explorer, lover of puns, superhero nerd, a Dreamer and Doer.

A Certain Feeling

I’m at a point in my life where a lot is uncertain. I’m not sure I’ll be able to get a job for the rest of this summer. I’m not sure what I want to do after I graduate, I’m not sure where I’ll end up in a few years. Out of all this uncertainty, wanting to go to Alaska was the one thing I was certain about.

Now, here we are at the end.

I’m still not entirely sure what it was that drew me to it; The posters, knowing people who have been on CU BackPack before, just the thrill of the experience of a lifetime. But now, as the last day as an official group comes to an end, I just look back on the past five weeks and think of how proud I am, of myself and of my entire team.

We started off uncertain of so many things. We were uncertain what we’d find, how to work the cameras, exactly how intense Johnny I really was, and how this trip would stay with us. Now, with a rough cut in production, and a chance to reflect on all that’s happened, I just want to climb to the top of a mountain and shout, “LOOK AT WHAT WE DID!”

Team, we did it. We got that B-Roll, we worked those cameras, we met some amazing people, we bonded all together, and now we’ve put together a story. A story that does the culture, the stories, and the people of Bethel a great justice. And that is something we should be very proud of ourselves for.

Being in Alaska was like a different world for me. I was able to put my phone away, and ignore the comfortable world that I’m accustomed too, and experience the real, raw, harsh, and yet absolutely beautiful world for an entire two weeks.

We were given the opportunity to step into someone’s life, and learn from both the good and the bad. So while we were there for the greater purpose of making our documentary, we were also there to learn.

So to answer the question: What is one thing you can do differently based on what you learned? I would say, Live with an awareness

John and Carol summed it up perfectly today as we wrapped things up; something chose us to participate in this experience, and therefore we are both blessed and given the responsibility to act based on what we witnessed and learned.

To live with an awareness comes in parts: to cherish, to expand, and to preserve.

Cherish the things we’ve been given, whether that means in life, relationships, the environment, and things we’ve learned. Seeing the importance these types of aspects play in our lives is crucial. Expand then means to share what we learn with others. Keep the conversation going. That then can lead to more knowledge, discussion, and sharing. Finally, preserve what we know, have, and share. Work towards making a difference.

While my lesson may be vague, the things I learned and experiences I had are far from it. I truly hope I can go forward from this point with a sense of certainty that I learned something and acted with that new knowledge.

Either way though, I do know for certain that this experience will never leave me. Thank you so much to Tim, Carol, and John, for working with us, and allowing us to be a part of your incredible mission. And thanks to my people, all of y’all. I have absolutely loved working with you all; we couldn’t have gotten a better team!!

Quyana, from the bottom of my heart <3

Kari Welniak: A Perfect Filling

Throughout the past year, a few things were certain about Kari Welniak: She’d had a smile on her face nearly all the time, she was working hard in her classes, and she had a Back Pack Journalism poster hanging on her bedroom wall.
“I took it off the bulletin board,” she said with a sly laugh. “I saw, ‘Do you want to travel to Alaska?’ and I knew I wanted to go, so I kept it.”

A natural out in the field. Photo credit Scott Prewitt
A natural out in the field. Photo credit Scott Prewitt
This is a normal trend for Welniak. Her decision to go to Alaska wasn’t the first she’d known for sure as something she wanted to do.
Born and raised in Omaha, she knew almost right away that Creighton was the best fit for her for school, and also a pretty obvious choice for her to pursue her dream of becoming a dentist.
Although she was unsure where exactly she wanted to end up as a dentist, her passion was evident. This year, she began working as an assistant for the dental practice through Creighton’s dental school. The school offers discounted dental appointments to members of the local community throughout the year. As a sophomore, Welniak holds tools and assists the dental students, but even talking about that simple act would cause her eyes to light up.
A similar light came to her eyes when the group drove past a dental clinic in Bethel, Alaska. Her eyes fixated on the building, she began asking questions about the clinic, the patients, and the needs of the community.
“While we were up there, Stan talked to me about it. And you know they need dentists up there,” Welniak shared. With a large population living in the villages, far from any kind of medical care, the thought of all the lives that could be changed simply with a dentist in town captivated Welniak.
“I don’t know, there’s just something so cool about the work that you do with your hands, and difference you can make in someone’s life.”
Participating in service for others and to her community has been a deep, growing passion for Welniak. In addition to working in the dental school’s clinics, she has also partaken in a number of service opportunities throughout her life. The Yup’ik way of sharing, and taking care of each other then really inspired Welniak.
“The community in Bethel was so awesome. Like, it’s made me want to find that kind of community here in Omaha, and at Creighton. The kind that really works together to help others.”
An experience of a lifetime, it’s hard to say where her time in Alaska will take her in life.

Kari in front of a glacier at the end of her Alaskan experience.
Kari in front of the Aialik Glacier at the end of her Alaskan experience.

As long as she can share her talents and soon-coming dental skills with those who need it; that all she hopes for. When asked what she’ll miss about Alaska, besides the community, Welniak couldn’t help but laugh.

“I’ll miss the cold. When I was little when it’d snow here and it’d be like 30 below and everyone would be inside, I’d be outside playing.”
With her love of the cold, and strong passion for serving others, if Alaska ever needed a kind-hearted dentist, sounds like she’d be a perfect filling.

Melting Away

On our last day in Alaska, our touristy group made a trip up to Exit Glacier. I was in an average mood; I was a bit tired, but excited for a scenic hike. I was excited for the thrill of reaching our destination and simply looking at everything around us, and enjoying our last true piece of our time in Alaska.

On the way up the trail, my thoughts just wandered. Each little break in the trees, we’d see the beautiful mountains and sky surrounding us, and each time I’d have to do a little spin around and smile with admiration for the beauty that is Alaska. It was hotter than I had expected, so after each little break, I’d rush myself just a bit to get up to the crisp glacier air a bit quicker.

As I got closer to the Glacier, I came to this point:

CUBP
The last sign on the way to Exit Glacier.

On that sign, it was noted as the location of Exit Glacier in about 1996. After reading, I began to feel slightly off, something I wasn’t expecting, as I finally began to feel the chilled wind from the face of the glacier.  I was still a little far from the edge itself, but I began to look around and I slowly realized the true impact of me being there.

I watched people walk up to the edge, smile or make a silly pose and get a picture. I watched people take a long look, and then just walk away. In the most recent exposed rock from the receding glacier, scrapes and scratches painfully dug into the rock were being ran over and overlooked. I suddenly felt disgusted with myself for being excited to be there. I was no longer a happy tourist; I was a mourning visitor.

This glacier, this change, had happened and is still happening in my lifetime. I looked at the clawed rock and I saw suffering. I looked at those smiling and taking goofy pictures as ignorant (even though I did get pictures in front of it). This once massive, beautiful structure stood with pride, yet now it is literally melting, receding, and cracking, losing its place on earth.

Exit Glacier, as it stands today.
Exit Glacier, as it stands today.

In a way I could compare it to the Yup’ik culture we experienced in Bethel. The old ways and traditions were being pushed back, forced, by a new western outlook. The children didn’t want a part of the Yup’ik ways, they want the modern ways, and therefore don’t make room for the culture. Just as the glacier had clung to rocks, trying desperately to pull itself back, those who believe in the Yup’ik culture are trying to bring it back to the people of Bethel.

In our times as humans, we lose things. From friends, toys, or games, to memories, material goods, or history, things disappear from our lives and this world all the time. But something made this different for me. It’s happening now. When I was 5 years old, that glacier was bigger; now it’s not. That one moment, standing on the edge of Exit Glacier made me realize the harsh truth of the matter; if people don’t see the importance of things such as culture and climate change, they are just going to keep disappearing.

Though I was in no way expecting something from that hike, it taught me something. It showed me the importance of staying aware, and being on the side of seeing importance and value in my history, my traditions and culture, and those of others as well.

I’ve learned a lot from my time in Alaska. From all the people and stories and lessons shared, it was all an incredible experience. Yet I got my final push of remembrance and inspiration from that hike frozen in my mind; and it’s one thing that will never melt.

A beautifully written passage about the glacier.
A beautifully written passage about the glacier.

I’m Sorry

If you’ve known me for any amount of time, you know that I apologize a lot. I tend to sympathize with whoever I am with, and try to communicate that I feel with whatever they are going through. It’s been my way of trying to be there for another person. It’s me verbalizing a hug, or giving myself to that person.

But as if I don’t say I’m sorry enough times in a day, I’ve found a few more reasons to say it.

I’m sorry. To those affected by climate change, especially those here in Bethel. For too long I’ve lived in my own little bubble. Though I’ve always believed that climate change was an issue, I never saw its effects and therefore did not give it much thought. But the lives that it is affecting here in Bethel are real, and it has opened my eyes to the true damage that climate change is having on our world.

I’m sorry. For the times I’ve lived my life selfishly. Living my life with only my future and my plans in mind. The times that I fall into the mind set of forgetting all the other people, communities, and cultures in this world, and taking for granted the connections we all have as a global society.

I’m sorry. For the times I’ve been thoughtless and wasteful; Whether I mean in terms of material, resources, relationships, or abilities. I know that I have been blessed in my life with my father as a strong provider,my mother as a strong supporter, family and friends to rely on, and many opportunities and resources to help me get further in my life. And while I have been blessed with all these things, there are numerous times that I have taken them all for granted. I need to step back and take a look at my life, and keep myself and my blessings in check.

I’m sorry. For not believing in myself to be capable of invoking change and making a difference in this world. Too often I over look my own thoughts and beliefs as small and insignificant. I am only one person, out of millions. With the mentality of “What difference could I ever make?” I am never challenged to take a stand, and work towards change.

Nelson, I’m sorry.
I hope more people, in Bethel and throughout the world, can learn to be as well.

I do owe you thanks, though as well.

Thank you for your dedication and passion for climate change. Thank you for your words. Thank you for touching my heart, and helping me to see the true emotional affects happening because of climate change.
Thank you for inspiring me.

 

 

Watch and Learn

Starting a journalism-project blog with a story about a camera, typical I know, but bear with me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve always been a visual learner. When I got my first camera, I took it out of the box, tossed aside the directions and simply played around with it until I understood how to use it. I wanted to watch and see until I could do it on my own.

The other morning, I went to Cecilia’s house to shoot some B-Roll. As we watched her cook and sew, she explained a very crucial aspect to the Yup’ik culture. Like any culture, the Yup’ik people had established a way for their children to learn and pass on their cultures and traditions. They valued and respected their elders, and therefore utilized them as teachers. Children raised in the Yup’ik tradition were taught by watching and memorizing.

Nico watching (through his camera) how to water-proof sew boots.
Nico watching (through his camera) how to water-proof sew boots.

A parent or elder would call the child over as they sewed, prepared dinner, got ready to hunt, etc. and say, “Come sit. Watch.” and from there the child would sit, watch, memorize, and learn how to properly perform the task.

My interest of listening and watching grew even more when we interviewed Charles, a young native Yup’ik. As he timidly sat in his chair, he explained that it was difficult for him to hold eye contact with us because of how he was raised. His grandparents had taught him that to show he was listening, he had to look at the person’s mouth, the complete opposite of western culture.

There is a deep tradition and beauty in learning from someone simply by being quiet and watching. It works along with the Yup’ik’s ways of community and connectivity. In order to learn the skills needed to survive, you had to be present in the moment. You needed to show respect and give attention in order to be successful.

When I tried to teach myself how to work my camera for the first time, I was confused and a little lost. I didn’t want someone to try to explain it to me using words, I wanted to see the different features, the different buttons and how they worked. This theme struck a chord with me. As I continue to learn more, it’s proving that while the Yup’ik culture is different, it’s also one that I could relate to. We both value learning by watching, and eventual doing.

A Different Practice

Today was a nice change of pace. For a new experience, a small group of us attended the Russian Orthodox Divine Liturgy. Right after Sunday morning mass with Brian as our Deacon, we grabbed our cups of coffee and piled up in the car.

This was the first non-catholic mass I’d ever been too. I’ve had a number of friends go on to study different theologies and participate in different services, but I’d never really been presented with an opportunity.

Claudia, Hannah, and I with our head scarves.  Photo courtesy of John O'Keefe.
Claudia, Hannah, and I with our head scarves.
Photo courtesy of John O’Keefe.

For the women, we had to wear long skirts and cover our heads with scarves. The liturgy was very traditional and structured. Though it had similar qualities to that of a catholic mass, it was still a new thing to me. The entire 2 1/2 hour service was sung, and we stood for the majority of the time. The church was adorned with beautiful icons and pictures. But out of all the different aspects of this service, I was surprised to find that my favorite was the set up.

The space was all open; no pews, no excessive space. Then up in the front area, a wall covered with icons and beautiful pieces blocked the entire front room. The persider would go in and out between rooms throughout the liturgy. I was told later that it was a representation of the border between the divine and ordinary.

It was a simple concept, but one I was not used to. I felt that I had always participated in a parish community that valued equality and mixing of the sacred and ordinary. Instead, this community practiced the opposite. Separating the two as a form of respect and setting the boundary of holy truly was a new concept, yet one that I surprisingly liked.

Though in today’s society, in which we constantly encourage each other and institutions to break down walls and have all things open, the Orthodox liturgy proved to me that it doesn’t always have to be that way. Sometimes having that wall of respect complements the ideals of mystery and sacred. I was so glad I got to experience it!

Carpe Alaska

There has been so much going on that the days and experiences are starting to all blur together and just feel like either one longgggg day, or an entire month. Yesterday was no exception. I’ve never had a day feel quite so long and so short all at the same time.

It all started with the opportunity to be behind the camera for an interview. This time I was on my own (accompanied by Tim) and really getting things going. Each time I’m feeling more and more comfortable operating the cameras and just more confident in my abilities. We interviewed a girl named Anna, a recent high school grad, about her experiences growing up in Bethel, and a few things about culture and climate change.

After listening to her perspective and rocking my detail-oriented style, we headed back to base camp. From there I was offered the opportunity to go for a walk and take some pictures. I normally would have just wanted to stay in and play some card games, but my gut pulled me out the door; and thus the dream team was born!

#DreamTeam Myself, Hannah, Morgan, and Stephanie
#DreamTeam Myself, Hannah, Morgan, and Stephanie

We went out on a whim of an adventure, and MAN was it incredible. It all started when we ran into some natives. Sadly, we bore witness to a common trend in Bethel as at least one if not more of our new insta-friends was very intoxicated. Nonetheless, they were still very friendly and talkative, and we took photos and laughed. And then the magic kicked in.

Mid-conversation, across the river, a moose and her two calves emerged from the bush, and we all exclaimed in excitement;, grabbing our cameras trying to get a shot. Either way, we were all so exhilarated that we gleamed, and started to head back to the social hall. Then we stumbled upon a woman with a yellow Finch that had recently ran into a window. The bird was still trying to fly so we all got some great shots of him. We finally arrived back inspired and pumped up for the remainder of the day.

#LayersOnLayersOnLayers
#LayersOnLayersOnLayers

For the near eternity that was left of the day, I was assigned to the group that was going to see a local village off the Kuskokwim river. We bundled up and prepped our equipment. We ended up taking a hour boat ride into the sun to see never-ending meadows, beautiful skies, and incredible wildlife. I was already amazed by the time we got to the village. We only got to stay for a short amount of time, which a lot was taken up by being swarmed by adorable kids, but it was so unforgettable. The B-roll aside, the images and scenes we saw will forever be with me. It all truly was a blessing to experience.

Ending the day with a bowl of freshly popped popcorn and jamming out with Hannah to “It’s the best day ever!” from the Spongebob Squarepants Movie soundtrack really just tied everything together.

I’ve really learned how incredible this trip has been, and how to fully experience things I just have to get out there and see what I can while I have time. Just realizing that this experience is completely in my hands just makes me feel so empowered and ready to take on each individual day. Good thing tomorrow is only a day away!! #MusicalHumor  #PopLockandFocus   image

Happiness Can Be Found

It’s already day four here in Alaska, and each day continues to teach me something new about myself, the Yup’ik people and their culture. We have been shown such hospitality and kindness in the short amount of time that we’ve been here.

When we first arrived in Bethel, I had a certain image in my mind of what we were going to see. We had been preparing for our trip months before through articles, videos, photos, and stories, but nothing could prepare me for what we’d actually be encountering.

As we’ve progressed through interviews, and heard a variety of different testimonials, I’ve noticed a common theme amongst many of the people here. We as journalists, as a group here to film a documentary and create and share a story, we’ve been asking a lot of the hard questions. We came here to address the issues facing Bethel; issues of historical trauma, institutional racism, depression, disconnection, and climate change. Yet it’s in situations like these that we forget to look at the positive side as well.

In high school, I remember that when a hard or sad situation was depicted in an area, those feelings of sadness and hardship are all I would associate that area with afterwards. It wasn’t until I got to college, and I got out into the world and heard stories of life, happiness, and positive assets to those communities. It gave me a new perspective and a better understanding. It opened my eyes to seeing both sides of a community, that a place will always been more than its negative qualities.

Bethel is so much more than its issues. It’s about its people; Their dedication to their culture, their tradition, their way of life. It is a society founded on connections, and family, trudging through the struggles of life together, on a beautifully simple path.

During my time here, as I continued to be reminded of this through my experiences and the people I meet and listen to, it helps me to see Bethel as an even greater place. This society is not one that needs me or anyone else to fix it, or address its problems, but instead is a good place.

As we’ve heard so many times in the last few days, from so many amazing people, Bethel is a place with so much to offer. It’s a place rich in culture, values, and love; and I’m falling more and more in love with it.

image
Ray Daw, one of the inspirational people we’ve gotten to hear from this week.

 

 

Outside Looking In

At 2 a.m. on our flight to Anchorage, I was awoken by the clamoring of ice cubes, and the crisp sudden snap of a soda can tab as the refreshment chart fumbled its way through the isle for the second time.

It surprised me that I had dosed off, so as I blinked my eyes awake, I glanced around to get readjusted to my surroundings. Then I noticed it. As I stretched, reaching into the cracks of available space, I caught a glimpse of a new light coming from the base of my window cover. I raised it slowly at first, as to not wake my neighbors, but as more of the view was revealed, the quicker I raised the cover.

Row 39 was suddenly flooded with a tranquil blue glow, and a single sigh of admiration. Coming from the moon and bouncing off the snow-covered mountains down below, the light conveyed a beautiful scene of the landscape. The feel quickly changed from tranquil to excitement, as I was overcome with joy, pressing my nose against the glass to get the best view possible. Then, one-by-one as my neighbors woke up, we all shared the same sense of awe and child-like excitement and wonder.

image

Then I learnt what it felt like to be on the opposite side of that window; To be a mountain that unwillingly chose to stand out.

Shortly after arriving in Bethel and getting settled, one of our guides, Sarah, took us on a walking tour of the town. As we trenched through the sandy mud between the spaced-out houses and buildings along the sides of the roads, we were greeted with a similar gaze of wonder. Cars and people passed by, with faces pressed against the window, following us for as long as their view could allow. Buildings where groups of people ran to the windows, as if to watch a parish parade on a warm summer day. Suddenly toys, bikes, and pets became boring, and we became the center of attention.

As Sarah put the town on display, it seemed more to me that I was the one on display. A group of white students, coming to see what this town is all about, almost making it their business. With all the pressing issues currently facing Bethel, I slowly gathered a sense of pride and independence coming from our onlookers. However, It wasn’t until a  whisper of “Go home” from a passer-by hit my ears that I both realized and understood.

In the past, the people of Alaska and the Yup’ik culture has had people come and try to convert them, change their ways, and potentially turn them into something they were not. Now, in a time where their very livelihood is threatened, and change and fear sit on the horizon, the last thing they may want is outsiders.

I don’t expect to change things here in Bethel, I don’t even think at this time it’s possible. I’m not even sure I’ll have an impact here. I know there are many things I still don’t understand, but that instead is why I’m here; to learn.

In our time and preparation for this trip I’ve grown more and more interested and invested in these people and their culture.

I only come to help tell their story.

Packing Things With Meaning

When something looks or sounds simple from the outside, it may seem boring or just ordinary. On the other hand, when something is found to be packed with a variety of aspects and meanings, not only will that item become more valuable, it also becomes more dynamic and influential.

Screen Shot 2014-06-06 at 12.57.27 AM
All packed up on coffee, maps, lessons, equipment, discussions, and excitement!!

While I’m not sure I can actually explain the craziness and dynamics of this past week’s “bootcamp” I can for sure tell you how valuable it has been. Mentally, we’ve had our brains packed with all kinds of information from settings, story ideas, interview practices, F-stops and ISOs, laughter, and preparation. It’s been great seeing how everyone is playing their strengths, packing what they’ve learned, and really seeing the team come together.

In a similar way, I’m becoming more and more excited about our immersion into the Yup’ik culture and its people. The Yup’ik people effectively pack meaning and importance into their culture, and I want to learn about them. The way they see meaning in such simple and beautiful actions and words astounds me; Words like “ella” that come together to mean weather, the Earth, and the universe. Compressing so many different meanings into one word just makes me want to learn more!

The fact that we are leaving for Bethel in just a few days is daunting to me. I know that time will move quickly, with how busy we’ll be. Therefore, I want to be sure to pack my Alaskan experience until I have to jump and sit on the case to be able to zip it all tight.

Rolled up somewhere in my sleeping bag are the things I’m worried about and my hopes for the trip. I want to be an active contributor to this project and my team. I don’t want to mess up, but I want to challenge myself,  and learn something new. I want to really get to know my team members as well; I mean some of us only go as far back as bootcamp. Establishing a community with this group to continue on after this month is really important to me.

Now while my personal packing (like actually putting things in my physical suitcase) is lacking, I know Sunday and this experience will be here before we know it. I just hope I don’t  forget something.#PackingAnxiety.