RYLA alumna brings teens together in Arizona
Annica Benning, a RYLA alumna, took the photographs and wrote the text for Arizona: Nations and Art. Photo courtesy of Annica Benning
A nnica Benning was shocked. “There was nothing green,” recalls the 16-year-old Rotary Youth Leadership Awards (RYLA) alumna. Benning was standing just a few hours from her upscale suburb in Arizona, USA.
“It was an eye-opening experience,” she says of the barbed-wire fences and dilapidated houses on the Havasupai Indian Reservation.
Benning visited several reservations while researching Native American art and culture for a project she developed at age 13 as part of her bat mitzvah preparations. A budding writer and photographer, she decided to put together a children’s book about the first people of Arizona. “In the fourth grade, you learn about Native American history,” she says. “I thought teachers could use my book as a supplement to their curriculum.”
Her mother, an artist, helped design and edit Arizona: Nations and Art and set up a nonprofit to accept the donations needed to cover the cost of Benning’s goal – to print 100,000 books, one for every fourth grader in the state. Benning has already given away 4,000 copies.
When the Rotary Club of Scottsdale learned about her project, Rotarian John Thornton suggested she apply for Rotary Youth Leadership Awards. In 2009, Benning attended a RYLA event designed to challenge participants to tackle problems facing their generation.
During the program, she thought about what she had learned while working on her book: that nearly one-third of Native American children live below the poverty line, and that the high-school dropout and youth suicide rates in their communities are high. Benning decided to try to recreate her RYLA experience to bring together Native and non-Native teens. The goal was simple: to help the participants find common ground and break down stereotypes.
She worked with the Gila River Indian Community’s youth council, United World College-USA, and several adult advisers to organize The Bridge 2010: Native and Non-Native Youth Summit for Understanding, held at the Boys and Girls Club on the Gila River Indian Reservation.
The two-day event drew 40 participants. “First there were ice-breakers, then some really good food, and guest speakers who talked about growing up Native American,” she explains.
Another event is being planned for next year, and many of the participants have stayed in touch through Facebook and texting. But some of Benning’s Native American friends continue “walking in two worlds,” she says. At school, they find support, but in their community some are put down for focusing on their education. Others have to take care of their families and are pressured not to pursue dreams that would take them off the reservation.
“For the Native kids, it’s intimidating when they go from a school on the reservation into mainstream high school,” explains Cyd West, one of the Native American adult advisers. “The Bridge creates a safe place to help them make the transition.”
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