Children’s laughter

Today was the last day of school for Chamberlain High School. Our four high school homes emptied out quickly once the school day was over. Many of the students will be back in a couple of weeks for driver’s ed, transitional living classes or summer work experiences. Kudos to all the staff who work with these students and saw them through to another successful year!

The ten 1st-3rd graders who have made honor roll all year were treated to a movie and supper in Mitchell. I joined Jennie (Student Coordinator) and Celia (Residential Coordinator) to chaperone the students and had a delightful time. The Pirates: Band of Misfits was not exactly a classic that I’ll never forget, but what I will always remember and treasure were the kids’ giggles and laughs at the silly humor. We ate supper at Culver’s, where everyone got to chose from one of 5 children’s meals, and end the outing with a scoop of frozen custard.

Children’s laughter has a magical quality that heals and strengthens the heart.

We have a small bus that was just the right size for our group. The trip takes about a hour each way. Videos entertained for a while, but mostly we started playing guessing games, talking and telling stories. I sat next to first grader, Nevaeh. Spending a couple of hours talking to a seven-year-old grounded me more solidly in the world view of a child. They have more questions than I have answers, but that’s why young minds can soak up so many things so quickly. Hopefully these Native American students will work hard throughout their many years of study, and learn how to enjoy learning.

Delightful days of Mission Awareness

We finished several delightful days of a Mission Awareness exchange with our SCJ sister schools and programs located in Mississippi. Twelve adults and eight students from the South spent time touring and learning about South Dakota and sharing part of their culture and heritage with our students and staff. The group began their tour in the Black Hills and Rapid City, and made the pilgrimages to Mount Rushmore and Crazy Horse on Saturday. Driving here on Sunday they came via Wall Drug and the Badlands. More than anything else, the group was tickled by seeing prairie dogs scampering around the Badlands.

Monday and Tuesday the Mississippi youngsters rotated around our classrooms to present information about their part of the country. One group presented on famous Mississippians, like Brett Favre and Oprah Winfrey. One section was on entrepreneurs, like the founder of FedEx, Fred Smith. In the 2nd grade classroom Kathryn remarked,

“Entrepreneurs is a big word for second graders. Those are people who have a great idea, and make it into something important. Can you think of any entrepreneurs?”

While most were puzzled, one student’s hand shot right up. “God” he wisely said.

A second group put together a musical presentation that taught our Native American students about Blues and Gospel music. One of their eighth grade students sang beautifully for us. Our students made percussion instruments out of corn, rice and beans and shook them in time with the beat. One group showed our students about the agricultural products the Mississippi River Delta is famous for, and yet another introduced our students to famous people involved in the Civil Rights movement.

We split our staff into two groups, so that each morning half of them could attend presentations about the pastoral ministry, educational programs, housing efforts and social services that go on in their part of the country. I saw many of our staff nodding heads and agreeing that working in economically disadvantaged areas, many of the issues are the same. Our staff was impressed and appreciative of their efforts, and we got many compliments about what we are trying to accomplish here in South Dakota.

Both days our guests prepared regional foods for our students and staff to feast on at lunch time. Yesterday’s menu included turkey with cornbread dressing, yams and turnip greens. Today we had pulled pork BBQ. Our kids love it all, except maybe the greens, but a certain yuck factor at anything new, especially in the line of vegetables, is typical of school aged children.

Monday afternoon the group toured the nearby Lower Brule and Crow Creek Indian Reservations. The trip included stops at a reconstructed Earth Lodge, typical of a Mandan village, St. Mary’s Church in Lower Brule, and a guided tour of the Sundance grounds. This afternoon our students had a chance to host and present. Our drum group played traditional songs, and our third graders were dance ambassadors. They demonstrated different powwow dance styles and  got all the guests on their feet to try hoop dancing.

Our archery students demonstrated the skills they’ve learned. Irene impressed us all by showing that she could hit the center of the target even while shooting lying on her back. (the next Katniss Everdeen?!) Our visitors were tickled to be asked to try their hand, and Rob, one of theeighth grade visitors, even got a bullseye! Our students sat with the guests and taught them how to make dreamcatchers. The end of the school day brought time to tour the homes and Akta Lakota Museum. We shared a meal of Buffalo Burgers, and parted with many joyfully shared memories.

Native American Career Day at St. Joseph’s Indian School

Native American youth listen to local nurse.
The kids learned so much at the Native American Career Day!

This afternoon the school hosted a Native American Career Day. Six different guests set up tables where a small group of students had time to ask questions and learn about their life and career. Two of the presenters were St. Joseph alumni. Nancy is the manager of the Subway restaurant here in town. Paul works at the Sanford Heart Hospital in Sioux Falls. It’s important for our Native American students to see those who have been in their shoes going off and taking on responsibilities like that.  They also met a nurse from Indian Health Services on the nearby Crow Creek Indian Reservation, the director of the technical school in the Sisseton, South Dakota area, and a tribal drug and alcohol prevention coordinator. The ambulance crew was also scheduled to present but, just before the day got started, they got called out for an emergency.

After school the whole student body and staff gathered in the Rec Center for our end of the year farewells to Child Service Staff who won’t be returning next year.

  • Kim taught here for 4 years, and will be moving to a different school.
  • Christine has been a houseparent for 5 years, and will be going home to New York to spend more time with her children and grandchildren.
  • After 10 years of houseparenting and teaching Religion, Richard will be retiring.
  • Chris has been a houseparent for 22 years, and will be going back to his native Oklahoma to continue his career in residential child care. He got up and reflected on his years here. “ Working with you kids here at St. Joseph’s all these years taught me how to be a good father to my own children.”

After 35 years in the school, Vaye Jean is retiring. She definitely enjoys being with our young people and will be back to sub frequently. But she does look forward to the freedom that comes with not having to come in to work every day when there are other family things you would like to do.

All of our honorees were given fitting presents. For their longevity, Chris and Vaye jean were honored by being given star quilts which were draped around their shoulders. There were few dry eyes in the gym when all was said and done. Every year we say goodbye to some great people. Every year we also have some new folks who join us with new ideas and energy.

Busy in the high school program

Hello, my name is Shana and this is my fifth year as the High School Residential Director at St. Joseph’s. We always have a very busy schedule the last couple months of school and this year is no different.

We had several students wake up early to take their ACT’s this past Saturday morning. Then, many Juniors and Seniors enjoyed the Chamberlain High School Prom on Saturday evening. It’s always great to see the girls with their beautiful dresses with their hair done up and the boys in their tuxedos and shiny shoes! Our houseparents in the Sheehy Home once again prepared a wonderful fancy dinner for the prom-goers with our girls from the Crane Home serving; everyone does their best to make this a special night for our Native American students.

This coming Friday is the high school talent show and we are looking forward to watching the creativity and talent of our high school students in action! Last year, we had students place in 3rd and 1st  with their talent acts. Even though winning isn’t essential to having fun at the talent show, it always fills us with pride to see our St. Joseph’s students receiving credit for their many talents (and bravery) up on stage! Good Luck!

In two weeks the Chamberlain High School Powwow will be held. Many of our students participate in Native American Club and are an integral part of organizing this annual event. It’s always great when the students work hard on getting people to come together in our community to honor their Native American culture and traditions.

Once May is here it’s time to get ready for final exams! This is always a stressful time, but our houseparents and tutors continue to help and encourage our students to give their best.

The fun doesn’t stop after the last day of school! In June, our incoming freshmen will complete our summer transition program where they will spend half of their day taking classes up at Chamberlain High School with their future high school teachers and learning the layout of the high school building. They’ll  get to meet some of the high school houseparents and staff and live in the high school homes. This is a three-week program and helps acclimate the new freshmen to both Chamberlain High School and the High School Program.

Also in June, most of our current high school students will be participating in our St. Joseph’s High School Summer Program so they can attend driver’s education class or work – either on or off campus – in order to earn extra money.

In July, some students will choose to participate in our Transitional Living Program. They will continue to work as well as experience more independence through added responsibilities. We have some eager and determined students participating in other academic programs this summer including College Horizons, Gear-Up, Upward Bound, Math and Science Initiative, In-Med (Indians into Medicine) and the Indian University of North America at Crazy Horse. One of our seniors has already enlisted in the National Guard and has been attending monthly guard drills. She will be leaving for Basic Training at the end of July after completing In-Med in June. Another senior was awarded the Davis Bahcall Scholarship and will get to travel to Italy over the summer prior to going to college. Several seniors have already been accepted into the universities of their choice and are looking forward to the next chapter in their lives.

Never a dull moment, even during summer ‘vacation’! Did I mention we were busy in the high school program?


Spring has sprung at St. Joseph’s Indian School

Spring has sprung and the campus at St. Joseph’s Indian School is coming alive!  The kids have returned from their Easter break  and now look toward the end of the school year. With the warmer temperatures the students are spending as much time outside as they can!  There are a great many activities going on for our students, tee-ball, softball, soccer and track to name a few.  The students stay busy and and their teachers, houseparents and support staff are always there supporting and cheering them on in all of their activities !

What does the end of school year mean for the Clinical Services Department?  Well, we spend the rest of the school year helping the kids stay focused on school and helping the older students finalize plans for driver’s education, summer employment, INMED (Indians in Medicine), Gear Up and plans for next year. We also work with our eighth grade students to  to prepare them for high school.

As spring gives way to summer, we will start working on new student admissions for next school year. The Family Service Counselors travel in the summer to visit our students and meet new prospective students and families. Traveling around the state to visit with old and new students  is always a great part of the summer.

As another year begins to wind down, I am thankful for the time I have been able to spend with our Native American students. The students get excited to go home and be with their families, but hopefully they know we will miss them while they are away for the summer!

Preserving the art and artifacts for future Lakota generations

In preparation for tomorrow’s Board of Directors meeting, I split the day between preparing reports and paperwork, and entertaining the SCJ board members who came in from afar and arrived on St. Joseph’s Indian School’s campus for the meetings. Those members of our tiyospayeextended family who have been with us since before 2005 will remember my predecessor, Deacon Dave Nagel, who is a board member. When he has meetings he usually stays for a few days so he can visit with staff and students.

Our museum had its semi-annual acquisition meeting, looking over an impressive collection of works submitted by Great Plains Native artists. There are always more pieces good for the collection than money in the budget, but with the help of a committee with solid judgment and art background, we did chose a few new pieces for the Akta Lakota Museum. By the time of the next meeting, we hope to be moving the pieces in storage into the new facility that will properly preserve the art and artifacts for future generations of Native American students and all visitors to enjoy and learn from.

American Indian boy smiling in the sun!
Fun in the sun at St. Joseph's Indian School.

As I walked across campus after school, the Dennis Home (1st-3rd grade girls) were outside playing on Wisdom Circle, turning cartwheels and doing handstands. Such energy – but a good way to burn it off after a day of taxing their young brains in the classroom. With the younger kids, I never have to ask what they’ve been up to, because they always run up and compete to be the first to tell me. For their enrichment activity they had learned how to apologize and accept someone else’s apology. I listened as they practiced and role played on me. Our world would be much better if we adults were regularly reminded how necessary saying I’m sorry really is.

Easter Egg Hunt at St. Joseph’s Indian School

Native American students getting lined up for an Easter Egg Hunt.
All of the kids at St. Joseph's Indian School had a great time at the Easter Egg Hunt.

The homes reopened at noon, and our Native American students started arriving back on campus to finish up our last quarter. April and May seem to fly by so fast, filled with all the end of  year activities.

Our Easter Egg Hunt at 4:00 p.m. encouraged the students to get back before supper so they can have time to settle into their homes and be ready for school on Tuesday. A few students made it back just in the nick of time and  rushed to the field where the eggs were hidden even before stopping at their home to unpack. There’s been a lot of odd news stories about egg hunts gone awry because they are too competitive. We try to keep it orderly and still let the kids have some fun. Our staff hid enough colorful plastic eggs for each child to find a dozen. Once a student collected theirs, they could help classmates fill their baskets. Once everyone had their eggs, they returned to the Rec Center to open them. All the eggs contained small prizes or candy, and a few had slips of paper that allowed them to choose a larger prize, like a stuffed bunny or a game. As the kids get older, they aren’t quite as enthusiastic about the eggs as the younger students, but all seemed to have a good time.

I saw a few students, especially the younger ones, fighting back tears when their parents or grandparents drove away. Even when students know this is the best place for them to be, those transitions away from family are inevitably hard.

Preparing students for their sacred day

Richard and his Lakota (Sioux) students.
Richard reading a book to the kids!

In a little over two weeks, on Sunday April 15, we will be having 21 students receiving the sacraments of Baptism, First Communion and Confirmation.

It is an exciting time in their lives and a somewhat sad time for me as this will be the last time I prepare students for this sacred day. I will be leaving St. Joseph’s Indian School at the end of the school term.

I have been here for almost ten years and in those years have served in various roles, including teacher and houseparent. I have tried to bring passion, dignity and laughter to each different job I have done, but the time has come to bring in new blood and new ideas.

I have always believed in going out when you are on top and not clinging to a job because it is safe and secure. We see that often in sports, where athletes hold on for dear life to their career, even when they can no longer be an asset to the team. I am proud of the work I have accomplished here at St. Joseph’s and walk away with my head held high and, most importantly, with the love and respect of our students.

I will be moving to sunny Palm Springs, California where an earthquake lasts only thirty seconds, as opposed the three day blizzards we have here!

As I let the Spirit guide me, please keep me in your thoughts and prayers. I must say, I have enjoyed doing this blog and am glad so many of you have responded so positively to what I have written.

God Bless you all – Richard

St. Joseph’s student receives prominent scholarship

Our student homes are separated according to grades. Grades 1 – 3 live in the same home, and when our Native American students move up to 4th grade, they will move to a new home, with added privileges and responsibilities. Since the school year ends in a couple of months, our staff is beginning to prepare students for the transition. The children will spend more time visiting the new homes, and getting to know those houseparents.

Today a survey was sent out to the primary grades houseparents. Some of the questions included:

  • Do you have a preference as to where this year’s 3rd graders should be placed?  (Please list names and reasons why.)
  • Do you feel any children who are 3rd graders this year, should be in separate homes next year?  (yes, sometimes our students don’t get along with each other!)
  • Are there any 3rd graders who will have relatives in the 4th-5th grade homes?  Does the student want to be with his/her relative?
  • Are there any special needs of the students moving up?

There are a lot of dynamics at play – but our staff tries to place children in homes that respond to their developmental and relational needs.

Erin received the Davis-Bahcall Scholarship
Congratulations Erin!

Erin, one of our seniors in high school, was notified this morning she was one of six students from South Dakota to receive a Davis-Bahcall Scholarship. Erin gets to spend a month studying particle physics at some of the great laboratories in the world. Her first week will be at Sanford Labs in Lead, South Dakota. The next two weeks Erin will visit Fermilab  just outside Chicago, and finish in northern Italy where CERN’s Gran Sasso lab is located.

Allan, the Chamberlain High School principal remarked that this is one of the two highest honors a high school student can earn in the science field.  Way to go Erin!

Great progress

The pre-cast sections of wall being secured.
Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center remodeling project.

Part of the road around St. Joseph’s Indian School’s campus was closed today as the construction company working on the Akta Lakota Museum brought in three large pre-cast sections of wall. Two pictured the notable Sioux leaders Sitting Bull and Gabriel Renville to replace similar murals that are being covered up with the new addition. The third depicts an eagle in flight, which we use as the logo for the Akta Lakota Museum & Cultural Center. The sections weigh over ten tons, and a heavy crane lifted them into place as workers attached the 20 foot high sections to the building. The new look instantly gave a sense of great progress as the project continues to take shape.

We hold an annual service awards banquet to recognize employees for each five year anniversary of their service. Tonight, in addition to honoring staff members for their longevity, we also singled out nine staff members who were nominated by their peers for setting a good example and going far beyond the basics in their job.  Vaye Jean has worked in the school for 35 years, and was the longest serving employee so honored. The night was rather poignant in that she will be retiring at the end of the school year. We will  make sure we say a proper goodbye when we reach that point. But, for tonight, we shared a sit down dinner, memories and appreciation for the contribution all our staff make to the success of the Native American students entrusted to our care.