Thanking Donors in Delaware and Philadelphia

Last weekend, a group of us traveled to Dover, Delaware and Conshohocken, Pennsylvania (just outside Philadelphia) for donor appreciation luncheons. Eighth grader Deavontay and seventh grader Keaytan were the guests of honor as they shared with folks about their routines and adventures at St. Joseph’s Indian School. The boys were great travelers, and enjoyed meeting about 70 guests each day who journeyed to the luncheons. The donors were most kind and hospitable, filled with insightful questions and lots of enthusiasm and encouragement for the Native American youngsters.

One man was a cancer survivor. Upon learning I’m going on three years since surgery to remove cancer, he took off a green wristband he had made for himself and gave it to me.

The words engraved on it are “never give up.”

That’s a good message not just for me, but also for St. Joseph’s Lakota students as they pursue their dreams.

St. Joseph’s students and staff at Independence Hall.
One of our first stops in Philadelphia was Independence Hall.
Seeing the Liberty Bell helped history come alive for the Lakota boys.
Seeing artifacts of the past – like the Liberty Bell – helps history come alive!

Upon meeting me, many people say, “I know you from your pictures.” I heard that often on our trip, but in addition I had to laugh when one woman said to me afterwards, “you’re nothing like I pictured you; you’re lots of fun!”

I’m glad she found the afternoon lively. I really do love the mission at St. Joseph’s and am glad that joy comes out.

We flew into Philadelphia with the students gawking out the window at the widespread city below. When I asked them about places they wanted to see and experience, our first goal was to taste a genuine Philly Cheesesteak for lunch. The weather was perfect for walking to stretch after a long flight and explore a colorful South Philly neighborhood. We tried Pat’s King of Steaks and sat at a picnic table outside to enjoy a mouth-watering sandwich that hit the spot.

The Native American boys and their teacher enjoy a genuine Philly Cheesesteak.
It was a beautiful day to enjoy a Philly Cheesesteak!

Downtown, we saw the Liberty Bell, Independence Hall, Betsy Ross’s home and Benjamin Franklin’s grave. My favorite was the portrait gallery in the Second Bank of the United States, with iconic paintings of famous Americans we recognized from history books. Actually seeing places and artifacts instead of just reading about them makes history come alive!

Sunday afternoon, we were able to spend some time at Valley Forge and learn of the hardships the Revolutionary patriots endured through some harsh winter months.

I’ve traveled a lot both before and since coming to St. Joseph’s, but I’d never been to Delaware before. The First State was my 48th, leaving only Hawaii and Alabama that I’ve yet to visit. St. Joseph’s is planning to visit Alabama a year from now. We have no Hawaii travel plans set, but if we ever go there, I’ve already had many people say they’ll volunteer to chaperone!

The Lakota (Sioux) boys learned about the Revolutionary War at Valley Forge.
Sunday, we visited Valley Forge.

Snow in April

The Lakota children enjoyed mild temperatures while playing in the April snow!
An unpredictable South Dakota spring brought lots of snow, but mild temperatures.

As St. Joseph’s Indian School starts to wind down for the year, several factors have come in to play this spring.  It is unbelievable the amount of snow we have received in South Dakota for the month of April!!  St. Joseph’s even missed a day of school due to the weather – that rarely happens since our Lakota students live on campus.  The students truly enjoyed being outside to play in the snow as the temperature was in the low 30’s, which is relatively warm.

St. Joseph’s track team has been diligently practicing, either in the Recreation Center because of snow or outside when the weather is clear. Needless to say, with all the snow, our track meets have been canceled so far.  We are hoping that the next one on Monday will take place as the temperatures are suppose to be in the 70s. Hurrah for the Glorious South Dakota Sunshine!!

Last week, I was involved with the Mr. Relay For Life Pageant that St. Joseph’s Relay For Life hosted at the Oacoma Community Center. The pageant was a spin-off of the Miss American Pageant, but with gentlemen of the community participating as contestants.

It was awesome to see the wonderful turnout from the community to support us in our endeavor to raise money for the fight against cancer! Of course, it really helped that our gentleman were such great sports with their choice of evening wear, talent and interview questions for the night’s competition.  It was an evening enjoyed by many family and community members.

I would like to thank all of St. Joseph’s donors for your support and donations throughout the school year.   You are a blessing to our school and the Native American students.

“Wealth and honor come from you O’Lord; you are the ruler of all things.
In your hands are strength and power to exalt and give strength to all.

–Chronicles 29:12–

The Lakota students enjoyed playing in the snow in April!
A mild April day is perfect for making a snow dinosaur!

Of Basketball & Ping Pong

Three other eighth grade teams took part in St. Joseph’s basketball tournament.
St. Joseph’s eighth-grade team lost their first game of the tournament by only one point!

Saturday at St. Joseph’s Indian School we had our eighth grade invitational basketball tournament. Four teams participated. Robert, one of our high school students, has taken to refereeing, and I enjoyed seeing him run the court and keep the game flowing and fair.

Our team lost their first game by only one point. Disappointed and tired, they didn’t play up to their potential in the consolation round and got blown out. That game was hard for the fans to watch.

It may be even more important to cheer and support when kids are struggling than when they are winning.

Some of the girls’ homes made a batch of sloppy joes, hot dogs and dessert bars to sell at the snack bar. The game room became a lively place to grab a quick lunch and catch up with staff and students.

Our younger girls had basic gymnastics practice in the afternoon. I see our students doing cartwheels all the time, and Heidi and Mark tried to teach them some new skills, like walking on a balance beam. I got in line and tried my hand (more so my feet) at the skill along with the girls.

It was actually much like the physical therapy I had to do to strengthen the nerves to my foot after the cancer surgery, and I had no trouble walking across. But when I tried balancing on one foot and leaning forward, that’s when I needed the spotter’s help to hop down. I heard lots of giggles, but at least I tried.

We had a blizzard warning and snow started flying Saturday night.

Our facilities crew came in early and had the roads cleared in time for Sunday morning mass. Much of the snow we get is dry and powdery. This was wet and heavy, and very much appreciated in an area that suffered from drought last year.

We’ve seen what the East Coast is digging out from, and keep all those adversely affected by winter weather in our prayers. After lunch, I saw a couple of the younger boys’ homes bundle up and head for the hills for sledding.

I ate brunch with the Summerlee Home (4th– 5th grade girls). I tried my hand at ping pong with Chassidy, who kept it going pretty good, and gave a quick lesson on how to hold a paddle to Daejah, who was fairly new at the game. Then it came time for all the students to sit at the kitchen counter and get their valentines written out for their classmates.

Greetings and a final farewell

It is strange the twists and turns our life journeys take us on. I have been reflecting these past few weeks about my time here at St. Joseph’s Indian School and about the impact the students made upon my life. I was thinking of one particular student I used as an example of going above and beyond what is asked of any of us. For many years, I used her as an example of her selfless action to help another in need in several of my classes.

Years ago, when this girl was in sixth grade, she had beautiful long hair and was very proud of it. One day she heard about a woman undergoing chemo therapy and was losing her hair and was in need of a wig. My student had her head shaved and donated all of her hair to help make a wig for this woman dealing with cancer. This past Friday, after several years of not seeing her, I bumped into her at a store. We were so glad to see one another and I was amazed at what a beautiful young woman she had grown into. I spoke to her husband and related what she had done in my class and he said she was still a woman of conviction and great compassion. This young woman is a true example of one the success stories of St. Joseph’s Indian School.

I am so proud of all of the students I’ve worked with. They have touched me, and I hope I have also had an impact on them. Some of the eighth graders have commented that we have known each other for eight years and, as they embark on a new journey, so shall I.

I have known my mentor match since first grade, when he hid in the closest of the classroom and would not speak to anyone but me! Now, he towers over me and is still growing (and I am over six feet in height!).

I will miss each student here and I thank each one for allowing me into their lives and trusting me with their stories of growing up Lakota. What an honor I have been bestowed with.

To all, I wish you peace and joy each day of your lives. Never stop dreaming and make those dreams become reality. I have always lived my life so there would never be any “should of, could of, would of…” and never stop believing, as Anne Frank said, “In the goodness of people.”

God bless,

Back in the swing of things

I’m getting back in the swing of things after a 10 day stay in the hospital for an obstructed intestine, apparently caused by scar tissue in my abdomen from the previous cancer surgery. Lent is often a time of fasting, and I had to go the first 7 days with no solid foods at all to help the system relax and clear itself out.

When I finally got to eat some chicken broth, it tasted finer and richer than Thanksgiving dinner! I had good care in our local hospital and thank all the nurses and doctors who looked after me.

Being close by also had the advantage of a steady stream of visitors. Staff dropped by to inquire, pray and support. One of our 2nd graders, Kyla, had to come up to the clinic for tests, and she stopped by the room with a homemade card and hug that brightened my day considerably. LaToya, one of our high school juniors who works an after school job at the hospital brought me my tray of food and greetings from the Crane Home. As I roamed the hallways, pushing IV pole ahead of me to get some exercise, I ran into a whole variety of folks from the community with health concerns of their own, and tried to be a caring listener to them.

Hospital stays trigger so many different moods and emotions. At times during the week I felt anxious. Once they determined I wouldn’t need to have surgery, but just wait it out, boredom became a struggle. A few times the hospitalization had a retreat-like quality, as I had plenty of time for prayer and spiritual reading. With no meals to break up the day, the Divine Office, with its various prayers at each time of the day, took on greater significance to mark and celebrate the passage of time. I tried to listen carefully to what God might be saying in the midst of sickness and struggle.

Being active, it’s hard to slow down and my mind raced with the many things I could be doing. Now that I’m home and have both the freedom and opportunity, I don’t have the energy I’d like. It’s important to pace yourself and not overdo it.

What blessings are you most thankful for

Our Lakota (Sioux) students are streaming in this evening as Thanksgiving break comes to an end. Most are now at the Rec Center where the boys Inter City basketball games are in full swing. We now have just three more weeks of school before Christmas break and I’m sure the time is going to be filled with many activities and also fly by quickly.

Our weather remained sunny and dry this past week which made travel for the families and guardians worry free. On Wednesday, the “official” time for school to dismiss for Thanksgiving break was 2:00, but when I got to the school around 1:45 the largest classroom had just three students left. With so many of the students families spread across all of South Dakota, parents and guardians showed up throughout the day at the times that worked for them. We have a group of over 20 students from the Rosebud Indian reservation, which is two hours distant. The tribe sends a bus to transport them back and forth over the holidays. That bus showed up around 10:00. Many families came around noon and were invited to the dining hall to enjoy a traditional Thanksgiving meal of turkey and all the trimmings.

Several students stayed on campus during the vacation. We have a couple of break homes for students who need to or prefer to be here these days – 9 students in the grade school break home and another half-dozen in the high school program. I stopped in every now and again to check if houseparents needed anything and see how the students were doing. The high school students were mostly involved with basketball practice. The grade school home had lots more fun activities, like a trip to Mitchell, South Dakota (70 miles away) to see a movie. There was also plenty of times for recreation in the home. Samantha and Aralyn taught me how to play Wii tennis on the TV screen – and thrashed me thoroughly of course.

Our homes are normally split between boys and girls homes. In the break home there’s a different dynamic as three families with brothers and sisters were together under one roof. They enjoyed sitting next to each other at table, and spending time with younger siblings.

On Thanksgiving Day, I drove 25 miles north to Fort Thompson on the Crow Creek Indian reservation to go to mass. Afterward, Sr. Charles cooked a turkey and invited people from the community to bring what they could to add to a pot-luck celebration. It was especially nice for those elders who may have been on their own otherwise to have company to eat with, visit and celebrate.

This year I am most thankful that I’ve been able to resume my normal routine of work; I’m glad the cancer is still in remission. What blessings are you most thankful for?

Here I am with the St. Joseph's Indian School float in the background.
Here I am with the St. Joseph's Indian School float in the background.

On Black Friday, the city of Chamberlain sponsored a Parade of Lights downtown. The evening started with a free chili supper at the Fire Hall. Santa greeted us as we rolled in. With the parade theme, “The 12 Days of Christmas” St. Joseph sponsored a float of, “A partridge in a pear tree.” Our break home students rode on walked alongside the float. Instead of candies, they passed out dreamcatcher keychains. Maybe not as tasty, but practical and longer lasting.

My fingers are sore from writing staff Christmas cards, which I have spent significant time doing while the office and school have been closed. Instead of just signing my name I try to write a few personal words to each person who works here. I am so grateful for the dedicated staff here at St. Joseph’s Indian School who do so much for our students. While running a residential school with 200 students is a big job, when each do their part, it somehow–thanks be to God–all comes together.

My 500th post!

I’ve been blogging for almost two years now, and Adria, who helps me with the technical work on my blog, tells me that I just completed my 500th post!

I started as a way to keep a lot of people posted about my battles and recovery with cancer, but also to let people know about the day-to-day events that make up the St. Joseph’s Indian School experience. I go back to the doctors in a few weeks for my next check up, and am feeling well. And each day that goes by at school, is another day of blessing, with lots of little events that touch my heart and bring a smile to my face.

"And each day that goes by at school is another day of blessing, with lots of little events that touch my heart and bring a smile to my face."
"And each day that goes by at school, is another day of blessing, with lots of little events that touch my heart and bring a smile to my face."

Today was All Souls Day. Fr. Anthony suggested the homes give the students a chance to write down names of their loved ones whose death is close to their hearts. At Sunday mass, the kids placed small scraps of paper, or a whole page of neatly written names into a basket. Today before mass, I read through them, and prayed for all people who grieve and are trying to find the way forward without those they love to walk with them on life’s journey. I’m also reminded that we’re all ultimately on a journey towards our heavenly home, and remembering and praying for those who have died gives us a better perspective on how we should live our lives today.

Chris Grant is a law enforcement officer whose specialty is preventing gang violence in Indian Country. He did a series of student presentations today, and I sat in with the 4th and 5th grade boys from Cyr and Perky Homes.

When he asked the boys how many of them knew someone in a gang, all but two hands went up.

Sadly, it is a very real problem even in rural South Dakota Indian reservations.  When he asked what gangs do, one of the students said, “Gangs fight for colors”. Just wearing the wrong color can be dangerous in many places.

Officer Grant showed some graphic photos about the kind of harm violence can lead to. He had our boys complete  attention the whole time through. We hope and pray our students make the choice not to become involved in gangs!

Benefit from their generosity

While I was in the office working on Sunday’s homily, I got a phone call from the Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center. A couple from Houston, Mike and Carolyn, had brought up a truck load of clothes to share with us and wanted to meet me and say hello. I was in sweat pants and an old t-shirt, but that actually worked to my advantage as we went to the storage building and unloaded. I took Mike and Carolyn on a tour of campus.

The William Home (4th-5th grade girls) were most gracious about showing us the home and talking about their routine. They also volunteered to try on some of the sweatshirts and a coat so the good folks back in Texas who gathered it all up could see the kids who will benefit from their generosity.

Hidden America – Children of the Plains

A day of some sadness with a funeral and a wake to go to today.

Fr. Brian was a 46-year-old priest who pastored in Fort Pierre, South Dakota until an inoperable brain tumor was discovered about four months ago. He had been in the hospital and hospice care since then, and died earlier this week. During the homily, Fr. Michel acknowledged so many people were saddened that a young priest who touched so many people’s hearts should die so young and so quickly. But God’s ways are not our ways. What is most important not the length of our lives, but what we do with the time God gives us. Going to a priest’s funeral makes me more deeply reflect on my own priesthood and ask how I can be a better and holier servant of God.

The moment I was most moved to tears came at the beginning of mass, with about 40 priests lining the center  aisle to greet the body. Fr. Brian’s niece and nephew sang a gospel song, “I will Rise”. I couldn’t help but think of my own cancer, which is still in remission. I had a sense of,  this could have been me. But it led to a deepening of the psalmist’s attitude – “What return can I make to the Lord, for all the good God has done for me in seeing me through?”

One of our secretaries suffered a family tragedy when her college aged son died. This evening at the wake the church and hall were packed as tightly as possible, with a tremendous outpouring of care and support from the community.

Tonight ABC news 20/20 program with Diane Sawyer ran a special on Hidden America – Children of the Plains. South Dakota’s Pine Ridge Indian Reservation was the location for the reports. The images and stories were powerful and well done. The journalists were realistic about the tough living conditions on the Indian reservation. And they also showed some of the hope and promise in young people trying to break cycles of poverty and alcoholism. Those are much the critical issues we at St. Joseph’s Indian School try to address.

I value the wisdom shared

We had an all day Board of Directors meeting. The longest segment of discussion revolved around the new strategic plan that we have been working on. With the added input and approval of the Board we should be ready to begin in early 2012. We went through the annual audit; we were glad to hear there were no major problems or findings. We reviewed the plans for the museum expansion and alumni center, and heard reports from our outreach programs on the Indian reservations.

I’m always trying to make sure St. Joseph is headed in the right direction, and asking the right questions. It helps to have others who care about the mission of the school to ask the big questions too, and provide direction and recommendations.

While I finish these meetings feeling a bit worn out, I also value the wisdom shared, which makes the load of administrative leadership easier to carry.