Donor appreciation luncheons in Denver, CO

All of us with the beautiful icon honoring Saint Kateri Tekakwitha.
The icon honoring Saint Kateri Tekakwitha was beautiful.

Two of our seventh grade students, Kaitlyn and Danielle, traveled to speak at donor appreciation luncheons in Denver, Colorado. We got in early on Friday, and decided to see the Denver Museum of Science and Nature. It’s the kind of place that tricks you into learning by making everything so interesting and fun.

We explored Egyptian mummies, amazing gems and minerals from the Rocky mountains and learned about a variety of Native American cultures. The girls’ favorite was called “Prehistoric Journey.” As we walked past dinosaur skeletons, they were in awe at the size and ancient nature of the beasts.

One of our school nurses, Ronda, chaperoned, and led us through a display like a health fair. After taking part in a variety of activities to measure heart rate, evaluate our walking style for calories burned, see our cells under a microscope, we got a personalized computer print out to take home as a souvenir. The planetarium show gave us a perspective on the massive size of our solar system. My favorite was the 3D movie about life under the sea. I even ducked one time when it looked like a jelly fish was floating past my head!

Our luncheons went well. Danielle and Kaitlyn were a bit nervous speaking at first, but with such a friendly crowd loaded with questions and interest in St. Joseph’s and our Lakota students, they were able to share lots of information and experiences.

We received wonderful hospitality! Donors Bob and Carylyn graciously treated us to supper at a nice Italian restaurant the first night. On Saturday, Alex, Chasson and Lauren invited us for a home cooked meal. We were even treated to a few pre-dinner flamenco style songs on  guitar. The students and I make a game of rating all the new foods they tried, and the girls set a new “record” with 27 new taste treats over the 4 days.

Since the nearest mall to Chamberlain is 135 miles away, what is a routine for most teens is  a special treat for our students, and we had to let the girls wander around the stores for a while.

Sunday night we went to Denver’s Cathedral Basilica for a special mass to honor Saint Kateri Tekakwitha, who was canonized earlier in the day. Kateri was a Mohawk and Algonquin woman and serves as a special inspiration for holiness for Native American Christians. Members of the local Kateri  community wore regalia from their tribes. Bishop James Conley, who led the celebration, has Wea ancestry and blessed the altar by using an eagle feather to smudge the smoke with sage.  The cathedral also dedicated a beautiful icon of Kateri that will help pass on her legacy to future generations.

Some of God’s magnificent creatures

Michelle and Amber stop for a quick picture!

Last night we returned from donor appreciation luncheons in Boston, Massachusetts. Amber, one of our high school students, had never flown before and thought the experience awesome. She and Michelle spoke before 70 guests on Saturday and 60 guests on Sunday, telling about their time at St. Joseph’s and answering questions about life on St. Joseph’s campus and in their home communities. I admire our students’ ability to overcome their fear of speaking to a crowd, and realize that people are very interested in their story. Our donors asked many great questions to find out more about our school and programs.

One of our guests was a young Native American woman I knew from previous parish work. She didn’t attend St. Joseph’s but is Lakota and from our area. She just moved to Cambridge in July to start a graduate program at Harvard’s School of Education and Leadership. Meeting people like her gives a good example of hope that our students may one day follow.

One woman we met is a member of our Tiyospaye Club, and has faithfully donated $10 a month for many years. She said,

“I am on a fixed income and can only give a little, but your staff makes me feel so special. I wonder how you treat your large donors?”

I was heartened to hear her comments, since we do try to treat everyone with care and dignity. I realize that it’s folks like her who make small, sacrificial gifts that make such a difference in what we are able to do.

We haven’t had many famous donors over the years (though oral tradition here does say John Wayne and Elvis each sent us a little something years ago), but some folks do share a famous name. On Sunday I met one of our friends named James Brown, obviously not the Godfather of Soul who passed away a few years ago. James enthusiastically talked about coming out for our powwow. I encouraged him,

“And when you do, I want to see your best dance moves on the powwow grounds.”

“Of course – my name’s James Brown isn’t it?” he quipped back.

Does anyone in your family share a famous name??

After we arrived on Friday we bought our MTA passes and started exploring the city. One of my favorite folk songs my Uncle Mickey sang to us growing up was the Kingston Trio’s MTA, and I was tickled to see that the passes we bought to navigate the city were called “Charlie Cards.”

The students took in so many sights as we walked the Freedom Trail and toured historic old graveyards. We shopped for souvenirs at Quincy Market and pondered the speeches that once echoed in Faneuil Hall. We found a colorful Farmer’s Market and shared a bag of fresh cherries as we walked the harbor and gazed at tall ships, sailboats, ferries and tankers.

We had a great time on our Duck tour!

After the Saturday luncheons, we went to church at St. Francis Chapel, which is right in the middle of a busy mall – a new and unique experience for those of us from such a rural state. Then Theresa, one of our donors, treated us to tickets on the Ducks, the amphibious army vehicles that drove us along the streets and plunged us into the Charles River for all sorts of different views. The guide was lively and fun, with lots of banter and corny jokes. History can entertain as well as educate.

Getting a chance to boat onto the ocean was the one event on the top of Amber and Michelle’s dream list, so Sunday evening we joined a whale watch sponsored by the New England Aquarium. We saw both humpback and Minke whales, some within 50 yards of our ship. Michelle and Amber had a great spot on the front of the bow and delighted in the breeze whipping through their hair as we motored out to sea. We even saw one breech in the distance, where the whale came all the way out of the water. We had some great looks at some of God’s largest and most magnificent creatures.

Coming back onto campus today, I spent a good deal of time with the 3 M’s (meetings, mail and messages). But I did make it over to school at the end of the day.

The third graders are reading “Sarah Plain and Tall.” As part of vocabulary building and understanding, they were trying to learn about the Flounder and Sea Bass that she was casting for. When the teacher pulled up images from the internet on the smart board, I shared about the whales we had seen.

The third graders were amazed that something living (not like the dinosaurs of old) could still be as big as two classrooms. We also did a little geography lesson as they reviewed what states we had to cross to get to the East coast, and where the oceans are.

Junior high study hall students were working on reading and math. I quizzed students on vocabulary words, and encountered a couple of scientific words that I myself had never heard of, or have surely forgotten in those years since my classes on nuclei.

Sixteen of our 48 high school students hit the tutor’s office last night. One of the rules that students complain about the most is having to turn in their cell phones before they retired to their rooms. Now the rule is that they can keep their cell phones as long as their grades are good and they have fewer than three missing assignments. I overheard students say their goal is to keep the phone the whole year by staying on top of their work from the beginning, which was one reason for the rush to the learning center.

The high school students have the Rec Center to themselves from 8 – 9 p.m., and I joined in playing basketball. I don’t run or jump so well any more, and as I age I’m better at assists than as a scoring threat. But just to keep the defense honest I will drive and put up a shot every now and again. When I hit a layup one of the houseparents chided 6 foot 3 inch Cody,

“You should have swatted it away.”

“I’m not sure if I’m even allowed to do that” grinned Cody.

I think the younger crowd takes it a little easy on me. I worked up a good sweat and hopefully some camaraderie that builds trust with students down the road.

Festivities at St. Joseph’s Indian School

Our high school students started two days of orientation. They will review the student handbooks and expectations, set up house responsibilities for chores, and do some settling in.

After their meetings, I got together with two of our juniors, Michelle and Amber, who will represent the school next weekend at donor appreciation luncheons in Boston. They’re both nervous and excited, and we went over what they can expect, and practiced what they want to share with the folks who are able to join us.

School staff did a double take when they saw me walking to my car carrying a big bowl of summer garden soup and wearing a bright and loud Hawaiian shirt over my usual black cleric shirt. Today, our development staff held their end of the summer pot luck meal. Our culture committee wanted to liven things up and chose a luau theme at American Creek Campground, just a few blocks south of campus.  Staff members got to vote for which supervisor was in charge of flipping burgers on the grill, and Mike and Kory did the honors.  The hula hoop and limbo contests added a fun flair to our time.

One nice aspect of having the pot luck at this time of year is that so many people have fresh vegetables coming ripe in their gardens, and we did indeed have a feast. The office also had three staff birthdays to celebrate, one from Saturday and two today, so that added to the festivities.

Fr. Steve is back

I’m back on campus after two weeks on the road!

I started with a visit to my oncologist at the Mayo Clinic. All the test results looked good, and they told me to keep doing whatever I’ve been doing for the next six months. I was in Rochester on my birthday, and that news was the best birthday present I could have hoped for.

Next I traveled to Oklahoma City for our donor appreciation luncheons. Laura wrote a great summary of that trip in an earlier blog post. I would add that the “celebrity” I was most excited to meet was Savanna, who is a St. Joseph’s alumnae. Savanna just finished up her degree in nursing at Murray State in Oklahoma and joined us at the luncheon. When our students can meet someone who was once in their shoes, and see them succeeding in school, that provides far more inspiration and hope than my words of encouragement can.

I spent a week at home where I had the joy of presiding at my niece’s wedding. Congratulations Allison and Steve and many happy years together! My family is spread far and wide throughout the U.S., and we enjoyed the chance to catch up. I was especially delighted in meeting the three new great nieces that were born since I was home last.

Back on St. Joseph’s Indian School’s campus I spent the first day walking around and checking out all that is happening. People often assume the campus is much quieter over the summer, but in June it is actually busier, if that is possible. The dining hall serves more lunches now than in the school year, since we have the Rising Eagle Summer Day Camp going on, the PAWS program from town joining us at meal times, and all our students who are working or taking part in  summer school.

Maintenance is crazy busy! The projects I saw in full swing include:

  • Repaving the Akta Lakota Museum parking lot
  • Brickwork on Akta Lakota Museum addition
  • Roofing the boiler-room
  • Recarpeting the school (after 20 years of heavy wear and tear)
  • Demolition of William and Summerlee Home interiors in preparation for remodeling
  • Building shelving to house museum artifacts
  • Painting Central offices

Several of our high school students are helping on some of the projects. I also saw students working in the kitchen, serving lunch, at the Akta Lakota Museum, running the gift shop cash register, beautifying the grounds and in the print shop boxing up notepads we’ll send our donors. The biggest number are camp counselors, helping younger children in recreational and arts and crafts activities.

Wade graduated here in the class of 1979 and hadn’t been back in over 30 years. I took him on a tour of campus, and he helped me get a better picture of what life was like at St. Joseph’s back in the dorm days, before we added our family home living units. Andy in the Rec Center, and Mary Jane our Alumni Director were staff he remembered well, and visiting them was the definite highlight of his time on campus.

Donor luncheon on the East Coast

Errol and Kyran, two of our high school students and I returned this evening from a couple of donor appreciation luncheons in Concord, New Hampshire and Portland, Maine. I was the one who felt appreciated as we ran into so many people delighted to be with us and meet students and staff. Many have been long time supporters of St. Joseph’s, but this was the first chance they had to meet any of us. One donor from New Hampshire presented me with a hand carved walking stick made from white birch, the state tree. It is almost 5 feet tall and thicker than I can wrap my hand around. As I left the luncheon someone looked at me and quipped, “Do you walk softly?”

We were graced by the presence of Shea Keck, an internationally known Native American performing artist. She is from the Eastern Band Cherokee from North Carolina, and led off the luncheons by singing Amazing Grace in both Cherokee and English. She has a soft spot in her heart for Native American children’s issues, and we were meeting to arrange a visit to the school. She remembers her grandmother giving to St. Joseph’s and said her journey has brought her full circle.

In Concord, we visited the Alan Shepherd/Christa McAuliffe Discovery Center, and took in a movie about Black Holes in the Planetarium. As a good museum should, it tricked us into learning something about science by making it fun. Our houseparent and chaperone Frank, who grew up on a farm, marveled at the thickness and durability of the rubber on the Space shuttle tire. Frank has been a houseparent for 25 years and reflected on the changes and improvements he has seen over the years. We constantly look for ways to improve, but it was encouraging to hear his perspective of how we have strengthened our team approach to child services.

Since New Hampshire is known for it’s dairy farms, several people told us a must-visit spot on our tour of the area was Johnson’s Dairy Bar for ice cream. They suggested I try the “kiddie-sized scoop,” which was as big as a soft ball. With chocolate chips and cherries, the Maine Black Bear flavor definitely lived up to the locals’ rave reviews.

I always imagined Maine as being a small state, but several people who live up north in “The County” drove three, four and even seven hours to join us in Portland. A few people spoke of a long association with St. Joseph’s Indian School through their parents or grandparents, and carry on a tradition of giving in their memory.

Though the weather was cold and blustery, we couldn’t come all the way to the East Coast without letting our students get their feet wet in the ocean. Fort Williams State Park holds a scenic and famous lighthouse, with a commission all the way back to George Washington. Our crew was captivated by the rocky beaches and tankers pulled by tug boats going by. Then we strolled around the waterfront in downtown Portland, where the boys bought a few souvenirs and mementos. We tried some of the local seafood specialties, and I had my first Whoopie Pie.

Another successful donor luncheon

Mia, Zoey, Fr. Steve and friends at the California donor luncheon.
Everyone had a great time at St. Joseph's Indian School's donor luncheon.

We arrived back home this evening after a lovely weekend trip to Napa, California for donor appreciation luncheons. Mia (8th grade) and Zoey (7th) took their first airplane flight, which was just the beginning of exciting new experiences and wonderful people we met along the way.

We flew in and out of San Francisco. Once we landed, we made our way to the edge of the Pacific Ocean so Mia and Zoey could get their feet wet and see the majesty and vastness reaching forever into the horizon. The waves were tall, and sent spray high into the air as they crashed onto the rocky coast. At first the girls were reluctant to approach the waves. After I made a couple of dashes and Denise kicked off her shoes and waded into the foam at the edge, they got up the nerve to venture out. Once they did, giggling and fascinated, they didn’t want to leave.

We crossed the Golden Gate Bridge, which is an awesome experience in itself and visited the Carmelite Sisters in San Rafael. They have been praying for our Lakota (Sioux) students for a long time and when they learned we would be in the area, invited us to stop for dinner and a visit. A life of prayer, hermitages and long periods of solitude is so different from what most of us experience, but testifies so strongly to each of us being able to deepen a real and sustaining personal relationship with God. The sisters showed great joy and hospitality as we sat down to a tasty meal in a dining room still vibrant and colorful with many Christmas decorations.

Our donors drove in from a wide circle, some as far as two hours away. A few have gotten the chance to visit South Dakota, but the vast majority only know us through the mail or internet, and were pleased to put some real people to the pictures they’ve seen. For me it’s also a great opportunity to say pilamaya thank you in a more personal way than through a letter. We ran into two donors who were totally surprised. One woman from Illinois was in the area for vacation and happened to be staying at the hotel. She was tickled to meet us. At the hotel reception desk, we found out that one of the workers there is also a St. Joseph’s Indian School donor. While we set up for the luncheon our two students went back to the front desk and presented her with a cloth St. Joseph tote bag and a powwow booklet as a way of saying thanks to her.

Everyone posing for a picture!
The kids had a great time sightseeing too!

After the luncheons on Saturday, we took a short drive through the area countryside. Even though the vines are not blooming right now, there is still such a beauty on the slopes and hills. The site our students, however, were most interested in, was the mall, where they got shop for souvenirs for family and some clothes for themselves.

Sunday evening we were back in San Francisco and stopped in at Fisherman’s Wharf, which is such a colorful, active place. Watching the girls delight in seeing Sea Lions was one of those priceless moments for me. We walked to Ghirardelli Square and of course sampled some chocolates. The line to the cable cars was quite long, so we just looked and took our picture by one of them. Kory was bold and did drive us up and down some of the famous hills of San Francisco as we wove our way back to the airport. Lots of good people and good memories.

A visit with my oncologists

Checking in, checking up, checking out!

I’ve been on the road a lot lately, and today is a day to do laundry and repack my bags for the next trip. We’re going to Pittsburgh for donor appreciation luncheons and I’m sure I’ll have a few good stories to tell after our return.

Last night, I returned from the Mayo Clinic after follow-up tests and visits with my oncologists. Thanks be to God, my cancer is still in remission, and I won’t have to return for another checkup for in six months.

Thank you for your prayers and support.

Overall, I’ve generally been feeling good. Still, I had a touch of anxiety heading for the check ups because I didn’t feel ill when they discovered the cancer in the first place. As I drove into Rochester, instead of sickly feelings, my memories of people who visited me in the hospital and at Hope Lodge, places we ate and conversations we had. I recalled fellow patients who offered their support. As I walked through the halls for my appointments, I remembered the initial visits, not knowing my way around, not knowing quite what to expect. Through the grace of God I’ve come a long way.

Like many of us who hit middle age, the doctor did notice rising levels of cholesterol and triglycerides and told me to take it easy on the holiday sweets and treats. He said I need to adjust my eating habits, (and take to heart the healthy school lunch challenge that St. Joseph’s Indian School earned!) and eat more fruits, vegetables and whole grains, and keep sugars and saturated fats to a minimum. He also said, the nerves in my leg have probably healed about as much as they’re going to. I’ll have to give up on fast breaks and stick to a set shot. But all in all, he was very happy with the progress I’ve made.

I enjoyed the gracious hospitality at St. John’s parish, which is literally across the street from the Mayo Clinic. Fr. Jerry and Fr. John have made it a home-away-from-home when I go for check-ups. At the 12:10 mass, I ran into a couple of St. Joseph’s donors who assured me of their continued prayers and a woman who herself was visiting the clinic for cancer treatments. We promised to keep each other in our prayers. My own brush with this illness has made me more aware of others struggling with health issues. I continue to hear from many people each day, requesting prayers and I am very mindful of all those in need of healing.

The drive is long, about 350 miles each way. But after the good news, I traveled back on eagles wings, with spirits soaring.

Back on St. Joseph’s Indian School’s campus, I noticed that three boys, in one family, have been checked out for an extended period of time, and asked if they were going to withdraw. Their home is two hours distant and their grandmother has been critically ill. They’ve gone back home to be of support to her. But they’ve done well at St. Joseph’s and definitely want to stay. They hope to be able to return after Christmas break. In the meantime, our teachers have been sending work home where an aunt is home schooling them for these weeks.

I thought that was a creative and compassionate solution that lets them be with family at such an important time.