Students participate in a Phlight Club event. The colored strings represent a students’ web of support. (Photo courtesy Amy McDonald)

A couple times a year, students in different parts of Prince of Wales Island are locked up together for three days. It’s Phlight Club, a program that aims to increase kids’ ability to cope with challenges, and improve their support system.

ROY G BIV is the common acronym for all the colors in the spectrum: red, orange, yellow, green, blue, indigo and violet. Those colors also represent seven components that Phlight Club – spelled with a “PH” rather than an “F” – works on with kids.

Amy McDonald is a facilitator with Brightways Learning, a nonprofit that coordinates Phlight Club events in Alaska. Speaking from Thorne Bay School, she described what each of the colors represents.

Red is the “rule of five.” McDonald said all kids need at least five caring, connected adults in their life.

“Oftentimes, teenagers don’t have five caring and connected adults,” she said. “We celebrate whatever they have. If they have one, we start with one.”

Those adults don’t have to be relatives. So, McDonald said they decided to call those adults “phamily,” with a ph, rather than an f. That phamily makes up a student’s anchors. The connections – anchor lines, so to speak — are represented by colored strings.

“Orange is tangible strings. Tangible strings are things like safe home, safe school, nutritious food, appropriate clothing. So, things you can see, smell, taste, touch, that you know you have or don’t have,” she said. “Yellow are intangible strings, which are more of those values, like curiosity, respect, or sense of humor or faith.”

More strings mean a thicker, stronger web of support.

Green represents the balloon students sit on in the middle of their web. Different factors determine how big that balloon is. Girls generally maintain their connections longer. And more social people have larger balloons.

“That means, not that you’re the most popular person, but that you’re comfortable walking into a room full of people,” she said.

A natural sense of curiosity also increases a balloon’s size, along with an optimistic attitude, and the ability to recognize your own strengths.

Blue represents scissors, which are things that happen in life that cut your strings and weaken the web of support. Indigo reminds students to show their appreciation to their caring and supportive adults.

“And then violet is social norms. Social norms in our story are like wind. If it’s a positive social norm, it can blow and lift your web up,” she said. “If it’s a negative social norm, it can blow and blow your web apart.”

McDonald said they focus on the positive norms, and ways to amplify those within a community.

Whew. That’s a lot of really important, deep stuff; how do you get kids to participate in something like that?

Well, McDonald said, you make it fun.

“We lift people up and fly them around the gym, we do trust falls, lots of relay teamwork, kind of team-building activities that are really fun,” she said. “And for our small rural schools, we start sometime on Thursday, stay up until midnight or 1 a.m., get up early in the morning Friday and do it again, get up early in the morning Saturday and we’re usually done by Saturday afternoon. So it’s a lot of really fun time with a whole bunch of kids and adults who are excited to be there.”

Some of the kids on Prince of Wales have been to six or more events, she said. And while they initially came for fun, they came back to learn.

“Then they’re actually like sponges, right? Learning all that stuff about finding more anchors, adding more strings,” she said. “Kind of looking at the world with a different lens, we call it a full-color lens. So they can set their futures up for success.”

The most recent Phlight Club was this fall in Hydaburg. They’re planning another one on the big island this coming spring. McDonald said there have been around 10 so far on Prince of Wales. And they don’t just work on POW.

“Galena, and then YKSD, Project Grad, which is part of Kenai; Chatham School District, which is Angoon, Gustavus, Klukwan and Tenakee Springs,” she said. “And then we’ve done a few elsewhere like Houston High School outside of Wasilla, we’ve done one; we’ve done a couple in Ketchikan, Russian Mission.”

And a few out of state.

McDonald recalls a couple of specific students whose lives were affected by Phlight Club, one dramatically.

“We had a girl here a few years ago who had been sexually abused in a community prior to moving here. Very traumatic. She was very withdrawn, contemplating suicide” McDonald said. “She started to come to Phlight Clubs. Her mom made her come at first. She will attribute Phlight Club to turning her world around.”

McDonald said that young girl learned to trust adults again, and learned how to advocate for herself. That girl is now in college.

Another participant – a boy – is naturally independent and has a really big green balloon. But because he relied on himself so much, his web wasn’t very strong.

“The first time he failed at something, he realized how much a web of support was important to him, because when he failed he was all by himself,” McDonald said. “(He) had to really work at finding people and finding other avenues in order to get back up on his feet again. Had he had that web of support built prior to that, he thinks it would have been easier to step back up.”

McDonald said it’s not only youths who are struggling that benefit from Phlight Club; all kids – and even adults — would benefit from more support in their lives.

Phlight Club has organized a couple of events in the Ketchikan School District years ago as part of Challenge Day. They’re working with some local organizations to offer another event in Alaska’s First City.