Living outside Alaska hasn’t diminished CIRI shareholder Jeff Hurlburt’s (Dena’ina Athabascan) desire to help his people. In fact, he has made it his “life’s passion” to assist and support Alaska Native people through his nonprofit organization Dena’ina Strong, a 501(c)(3) that delivers needed supplies to children living in rural Alaska.
Jeff was born and raised on the East Coast and currently resides in Middletown, Conn. His mother, original CIRI enrollee the late Julie Johnnie, was born in Maine and raised in Connecticut.
Jeff first visited Alaska when he was in high school. “We traveled to Alaska in 1995 and met my family in Tyonek,” he recalled. “It was a great experience. And then my mother decided to relocate to Alaska in 1997—first to Anchorage and then to Tyonek—to be closer to her people.”
“Moving to Alaska, she really connected with her culture,” Jeff continued. “I’d talk to her every night on the phone, and she’d tell me stories—who’s who, what’s going on in the village. She worked at the Tebughna School, and so I heard a lot of stories about what it’s like to be a young person growing up in Tyonek.”
Jeff holds a degree in physical education. “Phys ed has always been my thing,” he enthused. “I’ve played sports my entire life—football, track, wrestling—and I started a semi-pro football team here in Middletown back in 2007. The coaches and I would pool our resources so I could send things to the kids in Tyonek. It was something simple, but it planted the seed of wanting to start my own nonprofit.”
Jeff established Dena’ina Strong (formerly Dena’ina Gym) with the goal of promoting physical education in Dena’ina country. He registered the nonprofit at the state level in 2018 and received federal tax-exempt status in 2019. He regularly sends shipments of physical-education equipment, school supplies, books, holiday gifts and winter clothing to schools in Iliamna, Nondalton, Stony River and Tyonek, Alaska. “These communities are my focus, and I call them ‘the big four,”’ he said. “The other two villages I help out are Lime Village and Pedro Bay. And if there’s another village in need—like when the school in Kaktovik burned down in 2020—I’ll send supplies to them.”
In addition to a full-time job as an orderly with the state-run psychiatric hospital and a busy home life with a wife and four daughters, Jeff pours his time and energy into Dena’ina Strong. The organization doesn’t employ any staff, so the fundraising and administrative tasks all fall to him. To raise money, he has sold chocolates, teamed up with a local orchard to deliver fruit to customers and hosted restaurant fundraisers.
“I had a co-worker ask me not too long ago, ‘Are you still doing that nonprofit thing?’” Jeff recalled. “And I said, are you kidding me? Do you understand I’m going to be doing this until the day I die? And when I’m gone, my kids are going to be doing it. I’ve found my passion. It’s helping my people, and I can’t wait to do more.”