FAIRBANKS — What do group of teenage convicts and a 70-year-old volunteer have in common? Enough apparently that they’ve spent some 3,400 hours together in the last 17 years.
Pat Myers goes twice per week to the Fairbanks Youth Facility on Wilbur Street. She tries to visit youths who have no family or whose family live in remote areas and can only visit a few times per year.
“A lot of these kids are very homesick. They’re used to being on their four-wheelers or their snowmachines, being out. Being on a whaling boat,” she said. “I just hate the idea of them sitting there in there for a a year-and-a-half without any contact with the outside world.”
Myers is originally from South Dakota but has lived in many parts of the world between an Army career that took her to Texas and Okinawa and travels to rural Alaska with her husband. She’s lived in Alaska since 1968 and worked for 20 years at Fairbanks Fast Foto.
The volunteer work at Fairbanks Youth Facility was a natural choice for her. She’s always understood teenagers well and has volunteered at the Presbyterian Hospitality House, where she is a board member.
“I believe in young people. They have a head on their shoulders and they have a lot to say if people would just pay attention,” she said.
During her visits to the youth facility, she and the other inmates play card play games like spades, king’s corner and trash. They talk about whatever the teenagers want to talk about, often their life at the jail and their families. They’re able to talk together because most of the time she just listens, she said. Besides encouraging the inmates to work on their education she tries not to push any message.
“I think they’ve got a lot to offer and they’ve got a lot to say. Half the time they know what they need to do as long as they have some kind of sounding board. They don’t need a lot of treatment and guidance because they know what they’ve done and what they can’t be doing,” she said.
The Fairbanks Youth Facility is the second-largest youth detention facility in the state and can hold up to 37 youths. The inmates are a mixture of people going through the youth court and people who have already been sentenced. They go to school inside the jail and some earn the opportunity to do community service work outside the jail.
She’s never felt threatened by the inmates. The kids are almost always happy to get a visitor and they treat her respectfully as a grandmother-figure. Some speak to each other in street slang, but they generally use a more formal tone when taking to her. She’s also not put off by the “locked doors and all that clanging stuff” that intimidate some jail visitors. When she was in the Army she sometimes worked in psychiatric wards, so she’s seen it before. She is careful to keep her personal life separate from her volunteer work by not giving out her home address or putting it on the Christmas cards she sends some inmates. She’s protective of the inmates she visits as well. As juveniles, their identities are protected by law and while describing her work at the jail she was careful to avoid any anecdotes that could identify an inmate.
Myers doesn’t seek recognition for her work, but she received some this year after a staff members at the youth facility nominated her for a Lewis Hine Award for Service to Children and Youth, a national award given to 10 recipients each year by the National Child Labor Committee.
“Mrs. Myers volunteers for a group of juveniles who could easily be cast off simply by their delinquent and sometimes frightening past,” wrote Juvenile Justice Unit Supervisor Tim Oney last fall in a nominating letter. “She looks past this however and guides these troubled kids to who they can be without being boxed in by who they were.”
Myers was chosen for the award, which is named after an early 20th century photographer who documented child labor. She recently returned to Fairbanks from a trip to New York to claim it.
Contact staff writer Sam Friedman. Follow him on Twitter, @FDNMcrime.