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Dena'ina Wellness Center celebrates grand opening

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KENAI, Alaska (AP) — For decades, the Kenaitze Indian tribe has dreamed of operating a state-of-the-art healthcare and wellness facility; one that would house primary medical care, dental and physical therapy alongside traditional healing, food preparation and talk-therapy rooms.

Now, the 52,000 square-foot, two-story structure in Old Town Kenai will be open to all. Tribal members invited the public to a grand opening celebration, which ended Saturday, as the tribe celebrated with music, art, culture, prayer, dance and elaborate ceremony, the launching of what many called an indicator that the tribe's fortunes are changing for the better.

While most of the tribal health services have been moving into the building for about six weeks — dental and wellness center care began operating out of the facility April 14 — many are still settling into the new space. The building combines all of the services the tribe had spread into three locations throughout Kenai into one space on Upland Drive in Old Town Kenai.

The location is important, said Jaylene Peterson-Nyren, executive director of the Kenaitze Indian Tribe.

"It's significant in where it sits because all of Old Town is actually one of the original village sites for the Kahtnuht'ana Dena'ina," Peterson-Nyren said. "It's a very significant space, sense of place."

Many of the 80 people working in the medical clinic, Nakenu Family Center, and dental clinic are housed in one corner of the first floor of the building — there is one enclosed personal office in the whole building — as the tribe works to debut a Dene' model of care that integrates nearly all of the health care services into the building into healing services.

"We're focused on the integration of health. We are putting all of our staff into one room so that they're able to converse with each other. Behavioral health learns primary care language and vice versa," Nyren said. "They already have customers in common, but instead of a phone call or an email referral — they're five feet away."

While dreaming and planning for a space have been happening for decades, the project began in earnest after the tribe won a competitive grant through the Indian Health Service joint venture award in 2011. Using state money, funds from Cook Inlet Regional Inc., the MJ Murdock Charitable Trust, Rasmuson Foundation and the Alaska Mental Health Trust, the tribe hired Architects Alaska and ultimately Neeser Construction to complete the process. The group broke ground in 2012.

While the facility, which was projected to cost more than $36 million to build, had many state and community supporters, the joint-venture grant from Indian Health Service will pay many of its costs by funding operational, maintenance and staffing needs for 20 years.

A superficial tour of the building yields an amount of detail that hints at the complexity of the planning process.

"I think it was over a year of just talking and listening to different user groups," Peterson-Nyren said. "It is the best use of the space and the resource we could come up with."

The facility houses 15 exam rooms, four treatment and four consultation rooms, 13 talking rooms, 10 dental operation rooms, six classrooms and one demonstration kitchen.

The exterior design incorporates three massive wooden structures designed to imitate the traditional Dena'ina fish drying rack. Century-old wood from the torn down Wards Cove Cannery building is incorporated throughout the structure, about 43,000 board feet of it, both in its raw form and in highly-polished tongue-in-groove floors.

A walk into the building is designed to move the viewer from the beach — with dunes and beach grass landscaping and a thick ribbon of scattered rock and blessed agates running along the inside edge of the entrance to the building.

The colors and textures gives way to an ocean shore line in the "Gathering Space" and check-in area where curved couches mimic waves and a light harvesting system allows the room to be lit primarily by outside light shining through two-story glass walls.

On one end, a beamed structure — the Oculus — dominates the room, on the other a large, curved staircase leads up to the second floor.

"We wanted a space where the entire staff could be in one area for staff meetings," Peterson-Nyren said.

The room draws many of the tribe's employees who said they liked the view.

"I'm very partial to the big room," said Kyle Ferguson, Information Technology site manager. "I really like the design and oftentimes it's out of my way to walk down those stairs but I'll do it anyway. I like the feel of it."

A demonstration kitchen sits just behind the Oculus. The full-sized kitchen and classroom area allow for the demonstration of healthy cooking and food preparation.

"We can demonstrate both traditional prepared meals, like seal, or how to render salmon and properly care for salmon," Peterson-Nyren said.

An audio and video system is set up to record and broadcast classes "Food Network-style," she said.

Tile-work in the restrooms and along certain hallways is inspired by Dena'ina bead patterns and as exterior portions of the building fade away the interior of the building begins to resemble the forest and mountains of the traditional Dena'ina territory.

The colors deepen and the textures take on the characteristics of riverbeds and heavily-forested meadows on the second floor of the building where views of Cook Inlet can be seen from several vantage points.

"We wanted to give a sense of space, of being outside when you're inside, a sense of freedom," Peterson-Nyren said. "Whenever you're standing in the building, looking out, you can truly see out; all of the way out of the building, out to the mountains."

Ferguson, whose office space is on the second floor of the wellness center along a windowed wall, said the light is one of his favorite parts of the day.

"That's the first thing I do when I come in here every day is raise the blinds so that I can see the sun because it's beautiful here," he said.

The building has also achieved a LEED Silver certification, a system that ranks building energy and environmental design.

Among the highlights are the light harvesting system throughout the building which adjusts building light to compensate for the amount of light coming from outdoors, and a tank under the building that collects rainwater and uses it to flush toilets. Water runoff is collected and used to water the native vegetation outside of the building and exterior lighting on the building was designed to minimize light pollution by primarily being low to the ground and lighting pathways.

Each room is labeled with its use in English, braille and a Dena'ina translation of its function.

The endoscopy room is the "one looks inside place"; the staff room is the "put your work pack down here"; triage is the "make up your mind place"; and the fan room is the "it'll be windy place."

The translated names are important for tribal members, Peterson-Nyren said.

"When you think about wellness and identity and self-esteem and knowledge of self and the whole concept of Naqantughedu?, or the tide is coming back into us, it has been going out for many, many years and that has been destructive," she said. "But to have it coming back to us with the language and the culture tells people that we do have a lot to offer ourselves and to everyone. Our knowledge and understanding of taking care of the earth, taking care of ourselves, taking care of each other's families. It's not just the language, it's a concept and a unique view on the world."

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Information from: (Kenai, Alaska) Peninsula Clarion, http://www.peninsulaclarion.com

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