By Talli Nauman
Native Sun News
RAPID CITY –– A new Lakota Head Start and Early Childhood community center is looming on the horizon, thanks to financial backers of Rural America Initiatives (RAI).
The local non-profit organization responsible for delivering head-start and related youth services to Lakota families here and on the Crow Creek Indian Reservation for more than 25 years is hoping to garner enough money by its fundraising deadline to make the new facility a reality, it announced Nov. 18.
The deadline stems from the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Tribe’s recent pledge of a $250,000 challenge grant to RAI, which the organization is using to promote local support for a capital campaign to replace worn- out and fully depreciated 20-year-old buildings in Rapid City, according to RAI Executive Director Bruce Long Fox.
"We have reached our capacity; we have patched and re-patched too many times, and the buildings are tired,” Long Fox said. “In order to continue to serve the growing needs of our community, and keep our children safe, a new facility is essential."
If the challenge is met, the funds raised will be used to secure land for the new community center. This in turn is expected to leverage a significant amount of construction costs. The National Office of Head Start will contribute 25 percent of those costs.
The planned 28,500 square foot facility will house classrooms, indoor and outdoor play and garden areas, offices and support spaces for infants, Early Head Start and Head Start programs.
In addition, the facility will include energy-efficient administrative and meeting spaces for staff, community, and parents.
Included will be kitchen and laundry facilities, speech therapy and sick-bay space, as well as secure drop-off and pick-up zones.
The anticipated cost of land and improvements is $1.2 million, with an additional construction cost of $5 million.
The construction timeframe is estimated to be 18 months, once funds are raised.
RAI has already received several significant donations to help meet its Dec. 18 challenge deadline.
The latest donations include: $100,000 from Black Hills Corp. Foundation, under the auspices of Black Hills Power; $10,000 from First Interstate BancSystem Foundation, and $10,000 from the Beverly M.-Lloyd W. Paulson Charitable Gift Fund.
These gifts will be added to previous donations of $25,000 from US Bank and $5,000 from Casey Peterson, and other donations from businesses and individuals, RAI said.
“Thanks to the generosity of our community members who are stepping up to help us, I think we have a good chance of meeting this challenge,” said Long Fox. “We are hopeful for success.”
His organization has provided critical services for the most-at-risk Native American children and their families since 1986.
One priority for RAI is to serve children who are homeless, handicapped or in foster care. Almost 50 percent of the children in its programs are homeless.
Another priority is families who move from area reservations to Rapid City looking for greater opportunities.
For many, the opportunities they hoped to find in Rapid City aren't there for them, according to Long Fox. He says many are “one paycheck, one health crisis or one bit of bad luck from disaster.” If it occurs, they can end up in shelters, living several families to a motel room, on the sofas of friends or relatives, or on the street.
“They can fall between the cracks of traditional services, and may be the most at-risk for alcohol and substance abuse, domestic violence, teen pregnancy and lifestyle-based preventable diseases such as childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes,” RAI notes in its institutional literature.
Helping them demands local commitment, as well as government and national charity funding. “We couldn’t do it without the support of our community, our neighbors, and we’re so grateful,” Long Fox said in announcing the challenge grant deadline.
RAI’s early childhood education programs are currently held in modular and trailer buildings that were designed to last for 10 years, half the time they have withstood.
The organization was founded in 1986 “to partner with at-risk and low-income Native American families to strengthen the development of healthy, sober, self-sufficient lifestyles,” according to its mission statement.
Its programs provide services to children from pre-natal through high school, reaching more than 1,300 families.
Its goal is “to develop a new society of Indian men and women, "Ikce wicasa na winyan" (Common Man and Woman) who work within the community to strengthen families by practicing the values of respect, honesty, language, generosity and courage.”
In addition to Early Head Start and Head Start programs, RAI runs the Ateyapi wellness and role-modeling mentorship program in elementary, middle and high schools.
As Rapid City's population continues to grow, and the rate of growth for the Native American population is more than double that of the rest, RAI anticipates that the demand for its services will increase.
Its activities, which are alcohol and chemical dependence-free, provide role models demonstrating success for Native American families and support the seven Lakota values of respect (wauonihan), generosity (wacante ognake), wisdom (woksape), humility (wahwala), compassion (waunshila), service, or "helps the last one" (wawoihakikte), and honesty (Wowicake).
Its 100 full-time staff members are 75 percent Native American and are governed by a seven-person board of directors, consisting of: health care provider Carol Marshall-Coon, chair, Crow Creek Sioux Tribe; Ancestors’ Art of the Black Hills owner Sharon No Heart, treasurer, Standing Rock Sioux Tribe; Sioux San Hospital community health educator Jacquie Arpan, secretary, Oglala Sioux Tribe; Indian Child Welfare Act expert Denise Murphy, Three Affiliated Tribes of North Dakota; attorney and Juris Doctorate Brett Lee Shelton, Oglala Sioux Tribe; Sioux San Hospital rehabilitation aftercare specialist Larry Prairie Chicken, Oglala Sioux Tribe; and National Relief Charities Program Information Officer Laura Schad, Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe.
RAI was the first organization in the nation to convince the federal government to use a tribally controlled Head Start program to serve urban Indians.
Head Start and Early Head Start are federal programs that promote the school readiness of children ages birth to 5 from low-income families by enhancing their cognitive, social and emotional development.
RAI's prenatal to Age-5 Head Start program provides educational, health, nutritional, social and other services to children enrolled in a federally recognized tribe and their families.
Services are designed to be responsive to each child and family's ethnic, cultural and linguistic heritage. RAI's Head Start program has consistently scored among the highest in the nation.
Every RAI Head Start teacher and teacher mentor is required to have an Associate Degree or higher. Teacher assistants are required to have Child Development Associates (CDA) credentials in pre-school, while each Early Head Start teacher and teacher mentor is required to have a CDA in an infant-toddler setting.
A variety of services and options is available to families, part-day or full-day and school-year or full-year, according to Head Start and Early Head Start Director Anne Reddy.
Breakfast, lunch and snacks are provided. Transportation is available for those in need. Cultural and language curricula for the Lakota and Dakota language are used.
"We have to measure our success one child at a time and one family at a time. In spite of all of their challenges, we have families with big hearts and they have lots of love for their children," Reddy said.
Without RAI's programs, survival would be more difficult for transitional families -- those who move from the reservation to Rapid City looking for greater opportunity, the organization claims.
Children without early childhood education are: 25 percent more likely to drop out of school, 40 percent more likely to become teen parents, 50 percent more likely to require special education classes, 60 percent more likely to not attend college, and 70 percent more likely to be arrested for violent crime, according to a 2013 study by the Center for American Progress on the effects of budget cuts on Early Childhood Education programs.
“We estimate that we save our families at least $1,200 per month in child care and transportation costs, or $14,400 per child each year,” RAI says in its institutional literature.
“Moreover, our program addresses the needs of the whole family. There is great disparity in the unemployment rate in Rapid City between native people, at 50 percent, and non-natives at 4.6 percent,” it says. “Having a job changes lives and changes communities.”
RAI provides job training and teaching jobs, giving preference to its Head Start parents.
Of the 36 Early Head Start staff in Rapid City, 20 are or were Head Start parents. Of the 48 Head Start staff, 26 were former Head Start or Early Head Start parents.
The organization has discovered that volunteerism is a path to employment: Of the 67 volunteers in Early Head Start, 52 are Head Start parents. Of the 174 Head Start volunteers, 158 are or were Head Start parents.
RAI claims that investing in early childhood education to increase high school graduation rates would boost South Dakota’s economy.
For example, a 5-percent increase in male high-school graduation rates would mean an estimated $1.6 million savings to South Dakota in annual incarceration costs and crime-related expenditures, it calculates.
If that same 5 percent not only graduated but went on to college at the same rate as typical male high school graduates, their average earnings would accrue an additional $7 million annually, it continues. If just one year’s high school dropouts could be converted to high school graduates, South Dakota households would have an additional $580 million in accumulated wealth over the lifetime of the students from the graduating class, it concludes.
RAI’s Ateyapi, or “fatherhood”, program bolsters the early childhood programs with its efforts to increase the number of Native American youth practicing healthy lifestyles through physical activity and smart food choices in the schools and community activities.
Serving South Park, Knollwood, General Beadle, Horace Mann and Canyon Lake elementary schools, Ateyapi mentors lead students in the T.R.A.I.L. (Together Respecting American Indian Lifestyles) curriculum and include 150 minutes of physical activity per week. Nutritious food and exercise are tools to combat the serious issues of childhood obesity and juvenile diabetes.
Ateyapi also has a component called Teen Mentoring, which serves North, South, East, West and South West Middle Schools and Central High School. Since 1994, the program has worked to reduce the rate of teen pregnancy and high school dropouts, through role modeling and promoting positive self-image.
RAI employs 17 mentors in the Ateyapi program in the Rapid City Area School District. They are young men and women who themselves strive to practice sober, healthy lifestyles respectful of their cultural tradition.
According to the South Dakota Department of Health Office of Health Statistics, the birth rate for American Indian teens was five times that of white teens and three times greater than the general population.
The teen birth rates for all of Pennington County (Rapid City) were much higher than the state rates: Here, the American Indian rate was still five times greater than the white rate and three times greater than the rate for all races.
“Ateyapi is based on positive role modeling, because we believe that children learn more from how you act than by what you say. We choose individuals who are trustworthy, empathetic, supportive and patient. Our mentors encourage and motivate youth to envision successful, productive futures, and give them the tools to get there,’ the organization claims.
"RAI allows us to utilize our strengths to help families overcome difficulties and provide them with tools to change their lives." says Whitney Rencountre, Ateyapi high school program coordinator.
RAI’s after-school and summer program offers activities during what are called critical "high risk" hours, which channel students' minds and energy into cultural teachings, physical health, character building experiences, educational projects, tutoring and more.
Students in the summer program experience the sacred Black Hills (He Sapa) with field trips to Bear Butte, Devil's Tower, Wind Cave, PeSla, Little Big Horn Battlefield, Wounded Knee and Tree Day of a Sun Dance to familiarize them with and encourage them to develop a relationship with ancestral homelands.
RAI’s Dakota Site provides a pre-school and facilities for both infants and toddlers on the Crow Creek Sioux Reservation. For more information about Rural America Initiatives, call (605) 341-3339.
(Contact Talli Nauman at [email protected])
Copyright permission Native Sun News