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.

Guest Blogger: Pamela

Hello to everyone out there!

I am Pamela. My position here at St. Joseph’s Indian School is Transition Specialist. So what do I do? I help our eighth grade students transition from St Joseph’s elementary school to Chamberlain High School.

We have a summer program here for our new freshmen, which allows them to take classes in the morning up at the high school with some of the high school teachers. This gives them the opportunity to get to know some teachers and the school before they attend in the fall.

Native American student shopping in a college bookstore.
Danisha shopping for her new school colors!

Another part of my job is to help our high school students transition from high school to the real world of being an adult. I have one senior girl attending the American Indian University at Crazy Horse. This gives her the opportunity to take college classes from the University of South Dakota and work at the Crazy Horse monument. Danisha has the opportunity to earn 12 college credits before starting her college years at Dakota State University.

Erin is another graduate who is making great use of her summer. She is working now and will be attending the Davis-Bahcall summer program. She will study physics for two weeks here in South Dakota at the Homestake mine and then go on to Chicago and finish the experience in Italy. Another one of our graduates is attending INMED at the University of North Dakota. INMED is a program for Native American students interested in a career in the medical field.

Four Lakota graduates.
St. Joseph’s Indian School high school graduates.

I also work with our high school students in the world of employment. We have students working on campus learning about careers. We have day camp counselors, janitors, maintenance workers, museum workers and students working in the dining hall. This gives our students a chance to earn some money over the summer and learn about the responsibility of having a job.

Summers can be as busy as the school year around here! It is nice to see our American Indian students doing things that will help them prepare for their future.

Wishing you all a great summer!

The simple things in life

Today at church we had our final Rite of Christian Initiation ceremony for the students preparing for baptism, which we will celebrate April 15. Participants and their families are making preparations and getting excited.

Nice weather over the weekend means that we’re getting started with activities often pushed off until April and May. Once our American Indian students came back from spring break, all the bikes came out of winter hibernation, and the campus was full of pedal pushers. Some of the homes, like Ambrose (1st-3rd  grade boys) rode off in a supervised bike brigade into town to the local park. The soccer nets are coming out and rubber softball bases are spread over the football field.

Many of our teenage readers were excited that Chamberlain’s movie theater got the movie “The Hunger Games” for opening weekend. I myself read and enjoyed the series, though it is very heavy and thought-provoking. Friday night at the early show I sat next to a large group of our junior high homes, and when we exited the theater, ran into many high school students waiting for the late showing. One fringe benefit of living in a small town is they don’t charge big city movie prices. The movie ticket, soda and box of popcorn ran me a grand total of $7.25, and the movie theater actually gives our students a further discount.

Two couples graced my Saturday. While I was eating lunch, Pink and Edwina from the parish I used to serve in Promise, South Dakota, were in the area to visit their daughter and dropped by to surprise me with a visit. As a brand new priest, they were a widow and widower in their mid 50’s, with grown kids about my age. When they decided to get married, they came to me for preparation, and I felt humbled by their years of marital experience compared to my just-out-of seminary-knowledge about the sacrament. Still, I just facilitated their talking about many issues, and we had a simple but lovely ceremony when all was ready.

The second couple are college seniors, preparing for their marriage this summer. They bring a whole different set of questions, hopes and dreams for their marriage. I don’t do as much of that kind of preparation and ministry as when I was a full-time parish priest, but do enjoy getting to know couples and celebrating with them those special, unforgettable times in their life.

As I walked by the playground and toward the office, some students on the playground waved me down and called me over. The Dennis Home (1st -3rd grade girls) and Raphael Home (1st– 3rd grade boys) were having a picnic at American Creek park that night and invited me to join them. How can you turn down food, fun and an invite from an 8-year-old?

I couldn’t stay for the whole time, but we tossed footballs around, pushed swings, walked on the balancing logs and after a satisfying meal, got out marshmallows and roasted them on sticks. I haven’t done that for some time. Kids remind me of how fun and meaningful the simple things in life can be.

Moved to tears

I went back to the Lower Brule Indian Reservation for the sad funeral of a 24-year-old man who died on the icy roads. Another car lost control and slid into the vehicle he was riding in. Besides knowing him from junior high when I was Lower Brule’s pastor, his mother was our parish secretary and dad very involved in the tribe and community. Austin was starting to make a name for himself in rodeo as a bronc rider, and had just started competing in the PRCA circuit. Sometimes people don’t picture Native American Indians as cowboys, but the Lakota were historically very good with horses. Many tribal people here ranch and rodeo and still spend  a good amount of time in the saddle. The community turned out in big numbers to support his family. I was in the middle of the procession of cars going to the burial site, and as I reached the top of a hill I could see two miles of cars ahead of me, and a mile of cars behind me. Such a sad day, but incredible support.

Takra, displaying Native American beauty.
The students did an excellent job of communicating the material and opening up about their struggles.

This evening the high school performed their one act play “We Wear The Mask”. It will be presented again Wednesday in Pierre, South Dakota at the regional competition. Tonight’s performance was for family and friends. The students themselves created the content from real life situations and journal entries, dealing with some of the most difficult issues teenagers face. They vividly made everyone more aware of the tough issues of drug and alcohol abuse, peer pressure, depression, and the whole angst which comes when you are trying so desperately to fit in and be loved for who you are.

Three of our St. Joseph Indian School students, Jatonne on guitar and Erica and Chris in acting roles, contributed to the show’s success. I was moved to tears of sadness a few times at the emotions and feelings expressed about their high school world. Appreciated is probably a better word than enjoyed, to measure my feelings and reaction at the performance. The students did an excellent job of communicating the material and opening up about their struggles.

Good luck at the next level!

Preperation at St. Joseph’s Indian School

In a couple of weeks, we will celebrate and kick off the beginning of our new strategic plan. Aaron is filming a video to give some visual images about our mission, vision and core values. Graduation is one of our highest values, and we gathered up the 8th graders who will be receiving their diplomas in just a few months. They got excited as they put on cap and gown and mugged for the camera. They dreamed about what will be the next goal they set their minds to.  A few of the American Indian students were here as tiny first graders when I first started here eight years ago.

The actual filming took only a couple of minutes. The set up, with lighting and equipment took much longer. And before the setup, Aaron had to have an idea of what he wanted to show and get everyone’s schedules arranged to be together at that particular time. It reminded me that so often in life, preparation time we put in beforehand really determines if something we do will be successful or not.

I stopped in for supper at the Crane Home (high school girls). It’s hard to find a night when most of the high school students are home at the same time, but Wednesday’s the local schools don’t schedule evening activities so the churches in the community can have religious education time. Still, I visited the young women in shifts as they came and went from other activities – basketball practice, play practice and tutoring appointments. A few of the students are preparing to celebrate the sacrament of Confirmation soon, and had scheduled interviews with Fr. Anthony. They ate in shifts, and I did get a little time with each of the students. The time with any individual was too brief. I just hope that being present and letting them know I’m interested in how school and life is going, builds a rapport for a time when they might want to talk or share more.

Talking through joys and stresses

We’re continuing to meet with different departments to discuss the new Strategic Plan. While the first couple of groups were large, 20 – 30 people, today’s meeting with the Rec Center staff meant that three of us were listening to the ideas and feedback of a group of four. I quite preferred that because we had some interesting ideas and back and forth dialogue and the staff came away with a much better understanding of the difference they can make in the plan, and some opportunities the plan can open up for them. We have lots of good ideas for wellness and new activities for staff and Native American students alike. Like life in general, we’ll have to choose a few and let some go. There’s neither time nor staff nor facilities to do everything we’d like.

Shelly, who is a relatively new staff member, appreciated being asked her opinion. “You really want to know what we employees think!” she remarked to me. We sure do. It’s from our staff that we get most of our best ideas.

I ate supper with the Sheehy Home (boys high school). Half the guys were still at basketball practice when I arrived, and the other half were playing NBA basketball video games. I wonder what the favorite spot around here is?!  After supper the high school students who are applying for our June exchange program with our sister school in Handrup Germany gathered. One of the duties of those chosen will to give a series of presentations to the classrooms overseas. Maija, who trains houseparents, gave the American Indian students some pointers on how to prepare. In a couple of weeks, their power point presentations of “Life at St. Joseph’s” will be used to help select which students will represent our school.

The high schoolers ended the evening with their Sons and Daughters of Tradition session, which included a talking circle to help process joys and stresses that occurred in their lives over the holidays.