Governor, 2011 Iditarod champ announce 'wellness initiative'

ANCHORAGE, Alaska (AP) - Gov. Bill Walker and 2011 Iditarod champion John Baker on Friday announced the creation of an initiative that calls on Alaskans from across the state to take it upon themselves to promote healing from abuse, neglect and suicides in their communities.Walker and Baker were joined by Alaska's congressional delegation for the announcement Friday at the annual conference of the Federation of Alaska Natives. The announcement comes as the western Alaska village of Hooper Bay is mourning the back-to-back suicides of four young adults since late September.The idea for the new initiative, called "Alaskans Changing Together," was sparked by Baker, and involves people signing up to become volunteer wellness ambassadors, or create wellness coalitions or youth councils, among other suggested actions."John Baker's philosophy is that the most effective way to counter suicide and substance abuse is to plant seeds of hope and vision so that people, young and old, have something to believe in beyond the borders of their village," the initiative website states. "It is this sentiment that will be embedded into the Wellness Initiative."The musher, who is an Inupiat Eskimo, wants to expand on the concept behind an ongoing youth leadership program he is involved with in his northwest Alaska hometown of Kotzebue."Every person deserves to live a full and beautiful life," Baker said, noting how commonplace it's become to find people lacking a passion for life. "We must act to make things right."Walker told the audience he quickly got on board when Baker called him about a month ago to discuss the idea, saying the musher's vision and passion are contagious."He had me at hello," Walker said.To get the initiative started, the governor's office has a $50,000 contract with Remote Solutions, an organization run by Baker's fiance, Katherine Keith, according to Walker spokeswoman Katie Marquette.Alaska is consistently among U.S. states with the highest overall suicide rates, ranking second in 2013, according to the latest national statistics available. The state led the nation in 2010.Between 2003 and 2012, suicides among Alaska Natives between the ages of 20 and 29 occurred at nearly triple the overall rate for that age group, according to figures provided by the state.Note: see program at Alaskanschangingtogether.org

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