Community navigator helping tribal citizens find their way to resources

X'atshaawditee Tammi Meissner has found a career that allows her to go home at the end of the day with a full heart.

Since June, Meissner has worked for Central Council Tlingit & Haida Indian Tribes of Alaska as a community navigator in Wrangell. The position is essentially a reboot of the community liaison program that existed years ago.

There are 20 community navigators in communities across Alaska and outside the state in cities such as Seattle and San Francisco. The navigators are there to help tribal citizens find programs and resources that will aid them financially or in other ways such as tribal enrollment or applying for Social Security benefits.

"We've expanded the position so that each of our community navigators knows not only the Tlingit & Haida programs and resources but other resources," said Gail Dabaluz, self-governance manager with Tlingit & Haida. Dabaluz oversees the community navigators. "They not only guide tribal citizens to the resources but provide application assistance as well."

Being a tribal citizen herself and a lifelong Wrangell resident has been a benefit to Meissner and the community she serves. "I have heard feedback not only on Tammi but on all the community navigators that they (tribal citizens) are so pleased that there's a staff member that can help to provide that access to citizens where they're at," Dabaluz said.

"(I've lived here) my whole life," Meissner said. "I was born and raised here and so were both of my parents. I am Tlingit. ... My dad is Native. He is Deisheetan, basically from Angoon, where our family originally was, then they migrated. My great-great grandmother ended up here, married."

She was also adopted into the Naanyaa.aayí family in Wrangell. "Myself and my two children were adopted," she said. "That's the Native way to do it correctly."

Meissner ran the federal Johnson O'Malley (JOM) education program in the early 2000s and she has a degree in education. After raising her children and holding a myriad of jobs, she realized she likes to be of service to others. Her naturally outgoing personality helps her to connect to tribal citizens, and it's not uncommon to see her approach people on the street at random and start a conversation.

"This is my dream job because I get to be out in the community," she said. "I go to the post office and I might be there for an hour because I'm handing out cards and asking people, 'Have you applied? Will you stop by my office and apply?' It's just talking to them and seeing if they do need (help)."

Tribal citizens don't always know there are different programs and resources available to them, Meissner said. "Then you can say, 'Hey, there's this resource that might be of help to you.' They can say no, they can say yes, but at least they're aware of it now."

Thanks to Meissner's help, Aria LaChapelle, an in-home health care aide, was able to get her 3-year-old daughter Laylynn Crayne enrolled as a tribal citizen. LaChapelle was worried about losing her daughter's birth certificate if she had to send it into the Central Council office.

"My concern was sending out the original birth certificate," LaChapelle said. "It was a lot easier to go through (Tammi) to verify them and she could just send a copy in."

Meissner is able to certify birth certificates, "so I'm able to hand the original right back to them, which saves a lot of trouble." She's also able to help members get their tribal identification cards by having citizens fill out a form. She then takes a photo of them, notarizes the form and sends in the paperwork.

Since June, Meissner said she has had 725 interactions with tribal citizens, whether by in-person encounters, over the phone, or by having them stop by the office. Her efforts have also reduced the amount of foot traffic the Wrangell Cooperative Association has had.

"We are very happy that Tlingit & Haida hired a community liaison," said Esther Reese, tribal administrator for WCA. "Prior to Tammi being hired, we had a lot of tribal citizens coming to our office for programs Tlingit & Haida would do. It's a great resource for our community."

Reese said since Meissner is still relatively new to the program, many people don't know she is there to help, so Reese's office directs citizens to her when needed.

Dave Joseph used the community navigator services to apply for COVID-19 relief grants available to tribal citizens, but while he was in Meissner's office, she helped him update his ID card.

"She's a lot quicker than me on that kind of stuff," Joseph said. "She also had some programs there I didn't know about. I was in and out in about 45 minutes. Plus, her writing is a lot neater than mine. ... She's very helpful."

Meissner admits that she only knows so much, but having a network of other community navigators to turn to makes a difference.

"The more individuals you have, the more knowledge you have," she said. "I only know a little about a lot. Maybe somebody else knows more and I only know the name of a program. Maybe they've already done the program and they've already sent somebody through it. I can call them and have the information sent to me. I can have them connected with the tribal citizen. We work as a cohesive group."

She's grateful to Central Council for making the community navigator program available again, and she looks forward to finding more answers to help others.

"It's just a joy to help our citizens in Wrangell," Meissner said.


Reader Comments(0)