The Reality of Poverty

I wasn’t on campus for Sunday mass, but covered masses in town this past weekend at St. James parish in downtown Chamberlain. I enjoy preaching to people from all ages and walks of life. While I’ve been faithful to the duties of school administration, there are times that I miss the more spiritual focus that I had as a parish priest and directing seminarians in formation. Leading the community in prayer was a nice way to reconnect.

The Associated Press ran an article about poverty among Native American tribal members in South Dakota. With 65,000 Native Americans in the state, 48% live in poverty.

And it’s not just confined to Indian Reservations.

In Rapid City, our state’s second most populous city, 50.9 % of Lakota people live below the poverty line.

It’s a long uphill climb to combat those kinds of numbers, but we hope the education we provide the Lakota children at St. Joseph’s helps give them a solid foundation to fulfill their potential and rise above poverty.

I traveled 360 miles to Eagle Butte and back for the Sacred Heart Center’s Board of Directors meeting. We approved budgets and personnel plans for the coming year. One potential project with a lot of promise is a joint effort with Habitat for Humanity.

The shelter for victims of domestic violence is often filled to capacity, and families who need to make major changes in their lives aren’t usually able to do so immediately. Transitions take time, and there is great need for transitional housing where a family can be safe and rebuild their shattered lives. The Sacred Heart Center is in discussions with Habitat to help create some housing for that purpose.

Lynette, the cook, treated us to fresh, warm fry bread and corn & bean soup for a traditional lunch – delicious! In her work with youth who have been victimized by violence, she noted that it is usually easier for them to forgive the ones who hurt them than it is to forgive themselves… Violence is a difficult cycle to break, but that is at the heart of the Center’s mission.

Lanae, the new outreach coordinator for Sacred Heart Center remembered singing in the children’s guitar choir when I first served in Eagle Butte as a young seminarian. I enjoyed the reunion with her as an adult now, and the chance to catch up on where she’s been. One of her first fun projects was to have the youth in the shelter make Valentine cards for the elders. They brightened the elders’ day by making the rounds delivering the handcrafted greetings.

In town, I ran into Catherine, another youngster I remembered from parish CCD classes. She is now a Registered Nurse in charge of opening the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe’s new nursing home. She gave me a tour of the facility, which includes both a chapel and circular room for Lakota ceremony.

Currently, the elderly who need assisted living or nursing care must move off the reservation – at least 90 miles to Pierre or Mobridge, the nearest communities large enough to offer these services. The state of South Dakota had a moratorium on nursing homes, and the tribe had to apply for a special exemption. The building went up several years ago, but it took longer to get funding set up for ongoing operations. When it opens in April, it will provide needed jobs in the community and allow families to have much easier access to their respected elders who want to be close to home.

Today was an office day, catching up on phone calls and e-mails. As in any institution, some days there are stressful issues with staff or students. I bumped into one of our staff going home after a trying day. I asked if it was hard to leave the tough stuff at work. She told me of her ritual to help make the transition: she gets in her car, brushes her arms off in a symbolic gesture, cranks the radio up loud with her favorite song and sings at the top of her lungs on the way down the driveway.

I smiled, seeing the wisdom in physically giving yourself a break from what, at times, can be a stressful and demanding job. Staff who pay attention to their own needs, and get breaks and proper rest and diversion, are the ones who stay happiest and healthiest in the long run.

Catholic Schools Week begins

We began Catholic Schools week with all the staff and students assembled in the Rec Center this morning for prayer. Bright yellow and blue balloons in yellow and blue (St. Joseph’s school colors) added a festive atmosphere to the stage.

This year’s theme is Raising the Standard. We try to do that, not just with academic excellence, but by forming ourselves and our Lakota (Sioux) students in all-around ways. Each attendee received a rubber bracelets with the words “body mind, heart and spirit,” engraved on them. Those are the holistic areas of child development and our own personal staff development on which we focus.

A good number of teachers and houseparents were out sick today. We’re getting the wave of flu and colds that hit other areas hard earlier. Our students have generally been staying healthier than our staff, but the health center has also seen a slight uptick in patients. We had a few subs in the school, but also had the help of some “student teachers.”

As part of Catholic schools week, some students in each classroom were given the chance to stand on the other side of the desk and address their Native American peers. Some gave out spelling words, others taught a few math problems. . .  Maybe it gave them a better appreciation for the work their teachers do.

My hope is that their experience in the classroom here will light the spark that will one day draw a few of them back to the classroom as educators.

After school, I went to Fisher Home (6th– 8th grade boys) for supper. The guys had come in from the playground and were kicking back watching cartoons before supper. I always want to have dynamic conversations with students, but like many adults I get lots of one word answers when I ask “how was your day?” or “What did you do in school today?”

Building relationships with youth, especially those who come to us from difficult home situations or poverty, takes patience.  I’ve learned to let young people talk about what they want to talk about and unfold their tale in their own time and way. Sometimes you have to sit through Sponge Bob and build rapport to set the stage for later. Around the supper table, the boys were relaxed and more talkative without much prompting and I did enjoy that time.

Icy roads canceled tonight’s basketball game, making it a good night to stay in and read a book. I don’t mind wintry weather that forces me to slow down and nurture my quieter, introverted side, as long as I know all the students and travelers are safely home.

Planning for a better future

Now that all our staff is back full time, we’ve begun another round of our strategic planning. We have a plan in place that we’re already working on. We started holding small group meetings to discuss how the goals and strategies are coming along. We also answered questions about different areas of St. Joseph’s Indian School and how the plan is progressing, so staff members can be aware of progress across the board.

From our first rounds, staff seem most excited about our efforts to expand collaboration with other area schools and communities on Indian Reservations. They offered many suggestions as to how that might happen. Questions came about the challenges all schools face about better parental support and involvement. That’s especially tricky here because families may live far away without reliable transportation. Also, a good number of our students are here because their families are already struggling with a variety of issues like poverty and safe housing.

One of our hopes is to increase the presence of alumni on campus. A fascinating exchange came from one of our alumni who has worked here for the past four years. When he worked back home on his reservation, his job security was so tenuous.

Every two years, there is a tribal election. When one administration ends, so do most of the tribal jobs. Everyone has to reapply and, in his experience, who you know or who you are related to was valued more than experience and ability, which hampers progress and development. That led to insights and lots more discussion about that reality among the group.

October 8 is Native American Day

At St. Joseph’s, teachers work to incorporate Lakota (Sioux) culture into their lesson plans for the day. Outside of St. Joseph’s Indian School,the state of South Dakota has put out standards for cultural teaching.

  • In Sandi’s math class, students wrote and solved number sentences using the Lakota language instead of digits.
  • In Steve’s fourth grade class, students read “A Little Boy and Girl in the Clouds” and “Star Boy” by Paul Goble.
  • Fifth grade students learned about Winter Counts and constructed their own.
  • Sarah’s eighth-grade students read The Lakota Way: Stories & Lessons for Living by Joseph Marshall III.
  • In computer class, Gina worked with students to find a map of South Dakota reservations and discuss where each reservation is and which ones they are from.
  • Using Sherman Alexie’s essay, “The Joys of Reading and Writing, Superman and Me,” students in Craig’s class worked on identifying important values, philosophy, and beliefs in writing by Native Americans.
  • In Linea’s reading class, students listened to The Eagle – empathizing Compasion (wah-un-shee-lah-pee) – to care to sympathize and The Story of No Moccasins – empathizing Humility (un-shee-ee-cee-hay-pee) – to be humble, modest, unpretentious.
  • Third grade students watched a Native American storyteller share the story of why rabbit is the way he is.  After sharing and discussing the story, students made an animal poster labeling each part along with the Lakota word.
  • First grade students read “The Legend of the Indian Paintbrush” by Tomie dePaola.  The students created a Native American boy or girl and placed shapes in a pattern on the chest to represent the traditional beadwork and patterns on the leather.

Becoming role models

The work is progressing on our Akta Lakota Museum expansion. I spent a lengthy phone conversation reviewing some of the text panels for our displays that will tell the history of St. Joseph Indian School. I thought I knew a lot about our history from the books and journals I’ve read, but as alumni and workers fill in details, I’m learning more all the time.

In the classrooms during study hall, I noticed several 8th graders in the rooms helping younger children. The school has started a mentoring program for those students doing well and caught up. It gives them a chance to give something back and be a role model. It also helps the younger kids feel a sense of connection and a goal to reach for when they see older friends and relatives mastering the material.

I stopped in for supper at the Carola Home (high school boys). Mike, the houseparent had made his famous Texas fried chicken, with spuds and white gravy and sweet tea to wash it down. It’s one of the boys’ favorites, and rather than just eat and run, they sat around the table a bit longer to talk of school, sports, and give a good-natured teasing to one another – a good atmosphere in the house.

Lakota (Sioux) youth basketball

Our mail room is a busy place as lots of holiday mail starts streaming in. I am so grateful that people think of us as Thanksgiving and Christmas approach. I realize this is a tough time for many people out there, which makes the generous sacrifices all the more meaningful.

I finished off a day of meetings by relaxing with girls basketball at the gym after school. Our 6th grade girls came alive in the 4th quarter, scoring 10 of their 16 points then, and coming from behind to defeat Pierre Indian Learning Center. I took in the action on the court part of the time, but sitting in the bleachers surrounded by 1st and 2nd graders, I had a whole group crowded around wanting to talk and tell me things. Tayron in particular had question upon question that reminded me of my baby brother Dan.

Every answer I gave, was always followed up with another, “How come?”


Listening to our kids

Today’s gospel reading was from Matthew 25, about the wise and foolish virgins preparing for the wedding procession. I often ask our students what are some of the issues they and their peers face. Teen pregnancy is high on that list. I used the occasion to talk about preparing for the future, and the value in waiting until marriage to have children of their own. A lot of our students come from single parent families, or are being raised by grandparents or another relative. I hope they will be the generation that waits and prepares for that special someone who they can commit their entire life to, and are able to be there for their children.

Clare, who teaches one of our high school religion classes after church, said that it led to some lively discussion with her group. They remarked that they don’t often get to talk about premarital sex and its consequences, and had lots of thoughtful things to say, as they think about and prepare for their future.

I ate lunch with Raphael Home (1st-3rd grade boys). Around the table there was never a lull in the conversation, as each child had something “urgent” they had to share. It’s important to take time to listen when kids are young and full of questions and stories. If we don’t when they are young, they won’t open up as they get older.

The priests in my our local SCJ community gathered for our monthly meeting. Fr. Vincent works on the Indian reservation in Lower Brule and told me how much the parishioners there enjoyed having William Home (4th-5th grade girls) join them for mass. For the William Home service project, the girls baked muffins and invited the parishioners to stay after mass for breakfast. Who can turn down such an invitation from a smiling 10-year-old with a muffin?

A glimpse of issues

Of our 37 new students attending St. Joseph’s Indian School:

* only 2 live with both parents
* 14 didn’t live with either parent
* 15 had problems with school attendance
* 18 were witnesses to domestic violence
* 22 had family difficulty with drugs or alcohol

The SCJs have an 11:30 prayer time, usually for adoration and mid day prayer before lunch. Our houseparents usually have free time during school hours, but I happened to run into Tony on my way to the chapel to set up.

“You do this every day at this time?”

“We sure try to.”

“How cool!”

I appreciated the support and affirmation, but also realized staff shouldn’t be surprised to know that prayer is the foundation of all the other things we do. For all the administrative skills that I’ve needed to learn, St. Joseph’s Indian School is primarily a ministry. If we’re not in touch with the Lord’s will, in vain do we labor. Each day, I lift up the needs of staff, student, donors, tribal communities, nation and world, hoping all of us can walk the path God sets before us.

Though these kids have struggled, they are now happy to be at St. Joseph's Indian School.
Though these kids have struggled, they are now happy to be at St. Joseph's Indian School.

Mary Jane, who oversees Admission, sent us the summary profile of the new students we accepted this year. More students are coming to us from families living off the Indian reservation, in places like Rapid City, South Dakota and Sioux Falls, South Dakota or some of the border communities near Indian reservations. Numbers don’t tell the whole story, but give us a glimpse of issues the students might be dealing with.

Of our 37 new students attending St. Joseph’s Indian School:

  • only 2 live with both parents
  • 14 didn’t live with either parent
  • 15 had problems with school attendance
  • 18 were witnesses to domestic violence
  • 22 had family difficulty with drugs or alcohol

Tonight was our girls basketball opener against Lyman County, which is the next school district west of Chamberlain. Lots of familiar faces were in the stands, even on the visiting side, since I used to be pastor in Kennebec and Reliance. I always enjoy those occasions as a chance to visit with folks and catch up. Some staff were in the position of cheering for a niece on one side of the court, and their classroom student on the other. St. Joseph’s won two, and Lyman one, as all of our girls got the chance to run the floor and show what they’ve been practicing so hard for.

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!

“This is Carla, how can I help you?”

Hi friends! I was excited when Fr. Steve invited guest bloggers to write a little something for our readers.

My name is Carla and I’m one of the staff who answers the telephone when you call, so there’s a good chance we may have already visited with one another.

I was born and raised in Chamberlain and during my lifetime, I have seen St. Joseph’s Indian School make a difference in the lives of thousands of Native American children. I can’t say it often enough, but I am fortunate to work in such a caring environment. St. Joseph’s truly cares for these children and for their staff.

I truly enjoy visiting with friends of St. Joseph’s. Many people call for information about the school and the children, to give a credit card donation or to have their mail tailored to their special interests. If I don’t have the answer for you, I’ll find out who does and be certain all your questions are answered!

It is my pleasure to record and schedule your Holy Mass requests for Fr. Steve. I am also happy to fill out forms and confirm corporate matching gifts from your company. Many people don’t realize companies match donations from both active and retired employees and even their spouses, widows or widowers. It’s an easy way to make your gifts go even further.

We do everything here hand-in-hand with you. With your help, we are able to bring a brighter future to these very special Lakota (Sioux) children. Now be sure to give us a call (1-800-762-2162) if you have any questions. I am waiting to visit with you!