Helping children achieve their full potential

This morning after mass I saw a group of people wandering around Wisdom Circle looking lost. A group of education students from Dakota Wesleyan University in Mitchell started two days of observation in our classrooms. I escorted them to the principal’s office, and answered a few questions about our Native American students and programs along the way.

Later, when I checked how they were doing, they were impressed by what they saw in the classrooms. It helps to see the theory you’ve been learning about in college put into practice in a real and practical way.

The Honor Roll and Perfect Attendance awards for the first quarter were announced at the end of the school day. Students sat on the floor of the school gym and those so honored proudly came forward as their name was called to receive a certificate. They also got to choose from some attractive Native  American-themed notebooks and bookmarks.

We try not to be guilty of grade inflation, but did have FIVE students who earned all A’s! Those who continue with good grades, and those who can bring up their semester grades to all B’s and A’s will get to attend a fun and special banquet in January. Even without special rewards, our teachers are encouraging each student to work hard at achieving their potential.

What a great learning lesson!
What a great learning lesson!

Last night I stopped by Pinger Home (6th– 8th grade girls) for a visit and stayed for supper. The home won a Monopoly game from the Halloween decorating contest and Calista asked if anyone wanted to play. I’m a capitalist baron from way back, and soon was collecting big money from my railroads. There were lots of rules that students didn’t understand, especially having to do with mortgaging property or the 10% tax on the space just past GO, so we turned it into a fun math lesson. The game ended in a four-way tie as we ran out of time and the girls had to go to their Wednesday night enrichment class. Ironically, the theme the 6th-8th grade community is covering this month is money management!!!

Winter months make for a quieter season in our Akta Lakota Museum, so we chose this time to start the demolition of the old bathrooms and about a third of the display space to make room for some new presentations. After checking out the work, I stopped to see how our receptionist was doing in her new space. She was on the phone with a donor so I decided to check out how the new archive and collection storage facility looked now that we’ve moved everything into that area.

As soon as I opened the door the alarms went off with a loud siren! It took Vicki and I a while to figure out how to disarm the system and, by then, we’d attracted plenty of attention. At least we know the security system works!

About two weeks ago we sent out our Christmas appeal, which is the biggest mailing of the year. People have begun generously responding and we had many trays of mail arrive at the post office today. Our departments take turns helping sort mail when we’re busy, and it was Tipi Press staff’s day to sort. When I saw the email appeal for help sorting, I left my desk and joined them.

I enjoyed the chance to chat and catch up with what everyone is doing. While such a job can tedious, when many people pitch in it goes quickly. And I never complain about lots of mail, but give thanks that people care and want to help us make a difference!

Fourth and fifth grade students from Crow Creek grade school, our neighbors to the north, came to our gym for girls’ basketball games. The referees give players that age lots of leeway as they try to learn the basics of the game. They usually let double dribbles slide until it obviously becomes triple dribble. Our St. Joseph’s fourth graders played with enthusiasm, but could only get a couple of balls to drop through the hoop and were never in contention. Our fifth graders were more competitive and led the whole game until the fourth quarter, when the Chieftans rallied to win by 4.

Red Ribbon Week

As we were driving back onto St. Joseph’s Indian School’s campus from Denver Monday afternoon, we saw a girl in pajamas going into the Benedictine Homes. Laura remarked that she must have spent the day at the health care center. Then we saw the rest of the procession from school … also wearing pajamas!

It was the kick off to Red Ribbon Week – our annual celebration with the message that drugs get in the way of dreams and success, and there are so many fun and healthy alternatives. Monday the students were encouraged to wear pajamas to school – follow your dreams . . . don’t do drugs.

Tuesday, bright red ribbons tied around many trees on campus got everyone’s attention.

I will say no to drugs until I’m blue in the face!
“I will say no to drugs until I’m blue in the face!”

On Wednesday, the entire school had matching shirts, with the inspiring Gandhi quote, “Be the Change You Wish to See in the World.” In the evening the homes gathered for Red Ribbon Relays. The potato sack races were run (or hopped) with plastic garbage bags around Wisdom Circle. The problem with those was that scraping against the pavement started to wear holes in the bags, and by the last leg the kids could put their legs through the holes and run! Playing on the theme of “I will say no to drugs until I’m blue in the face” kids painted their faces blue – some completely like Blue Man Group, others with mustaches or creative artwork, but each unique.

Friday played on the theme of patriotism and the upcoming election – “ I elect to be drug free, by wearing red white and blue.”

This week staff reading group discussed a book of poetry called “Walking the Earth, Touching the Sky.” The collection was published by the students at Red Cloud Indian School. Everyone appreciated the beautiful artwork, the cultural information, and found several lines to be profound and thought provoking.

Robyn, one of our Family Service Counselors, shared that with her book on her office end table, students would frequently pick it up and start leafing through it themselves. They were impressed by how peers articulated in words what they too felt. That led them to open up and talk more about their experiences of grief, hurt, and being misunderstood, so that was an immediate benefit of discussing the book. Besides the difficult times some poetry expressed the beauty of nature around us, and the strength of God and spirituality.

Volleyball season wrapped up for the year with a fun match Tuesday night between the eighth grade girls and our staff. The adults got to be kids again, with wild costumes and Halloween makeup. I noticed that whenever our staff started pulling too far ahead, their serve suspiciously failed them and control of the ball went back to the students.  We laughed at the trick shots and fun antics to give the kids more chances, but after two overtime games with many ties and rallies the staff prevailed.

I was showing a visitor from Germany around St. Joseph’s Indian School’s campus. When she heard how far away our visitor had come from, one of our first graders asked, “Have you ever been to White Lake?” (a small town of about 400 a few miles from Chamberlain).

“That’s where I was in foster care before I came to St. Joseph’s.”

Our visitor remarked that there is such a contradiction between how so many of the children seem normal and well adjusted, yet realizing that it is often sad circumstance that brought them here. The younger students talk more freely about life’s difficulties than our older ones, but we encourage all to work through life’s hardships.

I stopped at the museum to wish Vickie a happy birthday. Perhaps a third of our museum has been put into storage preparing for the next phase of work, and the space looks so empty. But in a few months we’ll be having some great new updates. We are still open and have a good number of visitors from hunters in the area for pheasant season.

Tonight we held FAST (Families and Students together) graduation. FAST has helped strengthen ties between St. Joseph and the families, and hopefully strengthened the relationship between students and their parents/guardians. One parent shared,

“This program brought me and my kids closer than ever.”

Fly, crash, dream, get back up and fly again

“Red Rover, Red Rover, send Fr. Steve right over!”

Bursting through the linked arms of a second and third grader wasn’t too difficult for me, but I was gentle about it. The students got a laugh out of it when I joined them in Wisdom Circle for a couple of rounds of the children’s game after school today.

Today began our second quarter – hard to believe we’re already that far along with our school year! Our custom is to start each quarter by gathering in Our Lady of the Sioux Chapel for an all-school prayer service. This Sunday Kateri Tekakwitha, a Mohawk/Algonquin woman who lived during the 1600’s is being canonized a saint. Fr. Anthony quizzed the students about her life. Since she serves as a good role model for our Native American students, they’ve heard her story and came up with answers to all of the questions.

The pastoral care team put together a slide show set to a meditation on the scriptural theme of being lifted up on Eagle’s Wings and allowing our spirits to soar. Interspersed with inspiring pictures of eagles majestically in flight were pictures of our students going about their everyday routine of living and learning here on St. Joseph’s Indian School’s campus. As students recognized themselves we heard giggles, but also great focus, attention and pride. Afterwards we announced the Fr. Leo John Dehon SCJ Circle of Courage awards for the quarter, given to students who are good role models to others, and show generosity and kindness in school and in the homes. Hopefully the message that they can fly and God will raise them up was internalized.

Along that theme, I had an email from a donor – a veteran – who had been through many ordeals. His message to me was to help our students overcome the obstacles in their lives.

“Teach your students to fly, crash, dream, get back up and fly again.”

It was a gorgeous 80 degree day. Matthias Home (6th– 8th grade girls) invited me to supper. They fired up the grill and ate their  evening meal on picnic tables outside the home. We accept students throughout the school year as openings occur, and I got to welcome Brianna, our newest eighth grader. Her housemates were doing their best to make her feel welcome and help her fit in.

The last gasp of summer

Since our students live on campus, we have school on many of the federal holidays, but Labor Day is the last gasp of summer, and it was a day for fun and relaxing. All the Native American students on campus were invited to walk downtown for a matinee movie. Temperatures hovered around 95 degrees and we worked up a sweat. Everyone was glad to come into the air-conditioned theater and have a pop and bag of popcorn waiting for them. The movie itself was rather silly, but I enjoyed watching the kids laugh and enjoy themselves.

Afterwards, while we walked home, second grader Araya asked me,

“So are you really the boss of all St. Joe’s?”

“Yes, I suppose I am. How do you think I’m doing?”

“Not very well!”

Surprised to hear that response I asked,

“Not very well! What do I need to do better?”

“You’re too nice to everyone. If you want to be a real boss you have to yell more and get things done,” she explained.

While students have a lot of wisdom and insight, I guess we’ll just have to agree to disagree on my management style.

We ended the day with a cookout in Wisdom Circle, and had a chance to shoot baskets, toss around a football and slap away at the tetherball.


Bikes, ABCs and peaches

Today, I again visited the first grade classroom, where I have the most new names to learn. I was confused, and got a few of the names switched around. The first graders were also confused about my name.

“Are you really our teacher’s Father?” one asked!

They were reviewing the alphabet, and learning the letters by learning a chant and clapping pattern. While there are some things kids learn that we forget over the years, I was still pretty solid remembering my ABCs, and joined along to help them review. While most of our students have returned and breathed new life and energy into the campus, something was missing, and I couldn’t identify it until today. After school I saw the procession of the bicycles from their storage place in the picnic pavilion. The children parked them in their rightful places in front of the homes, and now the place is looking more like it should. It does my heart good to see the smiles of glee on youngster’s faces as they pedal around Wisdom Circle.

While on my way across campus, I came across a kickball game among the Afra Home (1st-3rd grade) girls. They got excited when I jumped in to take a turn. I kicked the ball over their heads, but ran slow enough for them to throw at me and get me out between second and third bases, before I went on my way toward another meeting. While I can’t always spend long blocks of time with the students, it’s those brief moments for a little fun and joy in life that create lasting memories and give meaning to my role here.

For our school lunches in the dining hall, as well as in meals served in the homes, we have been trying to emphasize more fruits and vegetables. Parts of South Dakota, especially Indian reservation communities, are often classified as a “food desert,” which is an area where choice and variety are limited and located more than one mile from the nearest grocery store. That point was brought home to me tonight in the Speyer Home (6th-8th grade boys). One of our new students was really enjoying the bowl of freshly frozen mixed fruit set before him.

“These orange things are pretty good – what are they again?” – the answer was peaches!

It was his first experience with peaches. If we’re going to help the next generation stave off diabetes and other health issues, we need to get them to try a variety of foods rich in vitamins and minerals. Without too much homework to rush off to yet, and sports practices still a week away, the guys sat around the table without rushing off, and talked about fun things they got to do over the summer.

The first day of classes at St. Joseph’s

The first day of classes! I enjoyed looking out my office window and seeing the playground, full of laughter and playfulness again.

I waited until later in the day to make rounds of the classrooms. The teachers need some time to get students settled and organized. The first graders especially will take some time to feel at home here and get used to the routine. As I walked into each classroom, I had our returning students help me meet and greet our new kids. I welcomed them and worked on remembering a few more names. We still have a few students who haven’t arrived, but know they’re on their way. By the end of the week when our high school students return, we should have everyone in place.

For supper I joined the girls of Stevens Home (6th-8th grade). They are enjoying the brightness and spaciousness of our newest remodeling job. The five 8th grade girls remember living in the home two years ago before the upgrades, and proudly showed off what they had done with the new spaces. While few of the students particularly enjoy cleaning, the houseparents, Frank and Wanda, told me the students have a little more pride and put in a little extra elbow grease to keep things looking nice.

After school the houseparents took the girls to Central Receiving, where all the new clothing that generous donors have dropped off or mailed in has been sized and sorted. They got to “shop” for a half hour, and were showing off their fashion finds. They were especially pleased to find a nice, dressy outfit or two for “church clothes”.

As I walked back to my office, I saw groups of the younger children playing in Wisdom Circle. I noticed that a good-sized group of Dennis Home (1st-3rd grade girls) were seated at the picnic table. Three were on the bench, and four others were sitting on the table, hovering above them and combing their hair.

A fair number of kids have returned from summer with head lice. It’s so commonplace here that it isn’t embarrassing, but a back-to-school routine that we have to plan for. Their housemates were gently and carefully combing and pulling nits out of hair. It seemed to build a sense of care and community among the girls, and they were enjoying the great outdoors, talking and getting to know the new students.

Inipi – sweat lodge ceremony

As I walked through Wisdom Circle on my way to the Rec Center, I noticed one of our first grade girls sitting alone on a bench away from the other kids. I said, “You look sad – is anything wrong?” She had been playing tether ball, but when her time was up another girl came and played with her friend and she was feeling left out and probably jealous. While those are small things to us adults (hopefully we handle them OK) it was a big deal to her, and putting a damper on her whole day. Then another tether ball pole was  freed up and she was off to play, things right in her world.

Our girls had 4th, 5th and 6th grade basketball games against Chamberlain. There were plenty of St. Joseph’s staff with children on the Chamberlain team. Practically everyone in the stands had divided loyalties, so there was lots of cheering for everyone. What the girls lacked in talent, they made up for in hustle and enthusiasm. It was particularly fun seeing the 4th graders go at it.

The boys had a great time prepairing for their was inipi - sweat lodge ceremony.
The boys had a great time prepairing for their was inipi - sweat lodge ceremony.

This afternoon was inipi – sweat lodge ceremony – for our teenage boys who wanted to participate. Several high school students served as mentors for 8th graders, a few who were going into the lodge for the first time. The grandfather of one of our students led the ceremony. I stopped by beforehand to see how the fire to heat the rocks was coming along. Mark, who works in the rec center, was the firekeeper. As the rocks heated up, one started to crackle and pop, which is dangerous in the small confined spaces. Since Mark has lots of experience, he culled that rock out with his pitchfork, and selected another that would be better. After the four rounds of prayer, everyone gathered for a traditional meal at Speyer Home.