Angus Fuson is 14, lives on the Navajo Nation, plans to be an astrophysicist when he grows up and says he’ll never touch drugs.

He is at Northern Arizona University for the second annual Navajo Youth Conference this week along with nearly 280 other participants ages 14 to 18.

For Fuson, the conferences are a fun way to learn about problems facing his peer group and his community. It’s a way to see parts of the world he wouldn’t normally see and get a different perspective.

“It’s pretty exciting to come to these youth conferences,” Fuson said in the duBois Center on NAU’s south campus.

“They treat us like family. At first you say, ‘Oh, man, I’m going to spend a long time away from home’ until you’re here and then you’re like, ‘Oh, cool, I like learning about all this stuff.’”

The youth conference is designed to raise awareness for Navajo youth about drug, alcohol and physical abuse; bullying; teen driving dangers; gangs; bullying and public health.

For some, it’s that time away from a difficult home life that’s the most important.

“I want them to know that there are all these different opportunities that their parents can’t give them,” said Seth Damon, a housing coordinator with the Navajo Housing Authority. “My main thing when we started these activities (was) I looked at the scene of what we have on and in our homes.”

Damon says that he kept seeing difficult home lives that were detrimental to the reservation youth.

High poverty rates into the 80th percentile on the reservation mean that educational opportunities are limited, traveling is rare and drug and alcohol abuse rates climb. Forty percent of the kids at the conference hadn’t ever been to Flagstaff before this week. good pullquote

Having been a troubled youth himself, Damon likes being able to help the kids in need. When he was young, he was close to going to prison, had drug and alcohol abuse problems, and dropped out of school.

Getting himself together, he earned his GED, worked through a bachelor’s and finally a master’s degree. Before working with the Navajo Housing Authority, he worked in the office of Congressman Joe Salazar in Colorado.

“This is my very first time working for my people,” Damon said. “The kids come up to me and say, ‘Thank you for taking me away from my life I have there. Thank you for bringing me.’ That’s the main thing is to see these kids light up.” good pullquote

The Navajo Youth Conference is organized and funded mainly by the Navajo Housing Authority, which provides housing assistance to people on the reservation. The authority comprises just more than 8,000 housing units and is required to meet certain public outreach quotas like the conference this week.

The conference is an opportunity for parents and the community to become involved with the youth as well.

Jolene Yazzi, of Tolani Lake, came as a chaperone this week even though her son was unable to attend because he had a basketball tournament in Phoenix over the weekend. Yazzi says that conferences like these are important to her future and the future of her people.

“I came to make a difference in one child’s life — it will help us have a brighter future and this conference is a positive step towards that,” Yazzi said. “This is my future.”

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