Local News

Sitka teen remembered for positive impact

A dune buggy accident on northern Prince of Wales Island has claimed the life of a 17-year-old girl from Sitka.

Alaska State Troopers say Paulette James was driving an ATV when it rolled over and down a steep embankment just before 5 p.m. Thursday.

The other passenger, 58-year-old Kenneth Morfeld, was flown to Wrangell and is expected to recover from his injuries.

Paulette James had just completed her junior year at Pacific High School in Sitka. Faculty members at the school remembered her as a positive force and a model of resiliency.

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Paulette James, during a tour of Silver Bay Seafoods in March. (PHS photo by Hillary Seeland)

Paulette James, during a tour of Silver Bay Seafoods in March. (PHS photo by Hillary Seeland)

In a photo shot last spring, Paulette James is wearing a light hood and a dark jacket, holding a bright orange king crab by two legs.

“That picture was taken at Silver Bay Seafoods,” said Hillary Seeland, one of Paulette’s teachers. They visited the fish processor as part of an Alaska Studies class on herring. In the picture, Paulette has a huge smile on her face. But she also looks surprised.

“She was, I think, amazed,” Seeland said. “She had never been that close to a king crab before. She was also really proud of herself for being the only one brave enough to hold the king crab.”

It’s one moment from one day of Paulette James’s life, but in a way, it might symbolize a larger part of her personality.

“She craved new experiences,” Seeland said. “She desperately wanted to make a difference in the world, and she wanted to be heard, and she really wanted to help give voices to people who didn’t have a voice.”

After a Pacific High class on the science and effects of methamphetamines, Paulette organized an event in Sitka to promote resiliency — to let people know they could recover from addiction. In April, she told KCAW that the class made her aware of how people affected by meth could easily lose hope.

“They didn’t know what it could do to the body,” Paulette said. “They didn’t know their life would completely turn over, that they’d lose their job, lose their family, and that everything that they had that they cared about, within months or a year. That’s the biggest message we want to get out there: We care, and you have value.”

So, in May, she organized something called a “Resiliency Fair.” Groups and individuals gave short performances and talked about what resiliency meant to them. Phil Burdick is co-principal of Pacific High School.

“She knew that people needed the fair,” Burdick said. “She knew that people needed to hear about being resilient. She knew that you needed people in your life to be resilient and she wanted to be that person.”

Burdick says Paulette worked hard on the fair, but didn’t have much trouble convincing people it was a good idea.

“She had that kind of personality where you wanted to be with her, you wanted to laugh with her,” he said.

Pacific High teacher Mandy Summer sent this photo of Paulette James, from a school trip to Oregon last year. It's labeled "classic Paulette."

Pacific High teacher Mandy Summer sent this photo of Paulette James, from a school trip to Oregon last year. It’s labeled “classic Paulette.”

Teachers at Pacific High School still have her anthology of writing from the last year. In her biography, she wrote: “My name is Paulette James and I am 17 years old. I have had a quite exquisite life, but rather challenging you might say.” A poem she wrote ends like this:

I am the one who is happy in the heart, and from the deepest depths of the mind.

I too have a glorious sunshine in me, that for the very first time in my life is expanding out rays of truth from my soul, to this grateful yet careless world.

Seeland, the Pacific High teacher, says the poem is one of her favorites.

“Other people’s happiness — her community’s happiness, her family’s happiness — was always so very important to her,” Seeland said. “She just really wanted to make the world a better place.”

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