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Lummi residential academy gives students the support they need to pursue their dreams

By Richard Walker, TODAY CORRESPONDENT

LUMMI, Wash. - The girl slept soundly on the couch, an unknowing evidence of the need for a place of nurture and support for children who want to stay clean and stay in school.

The Spokane girl had graduated from Se>Eye>Chen, Lummi;s in-patient youth treatment facility, the day before. After a day of congratulatory hugs and best wishes, she was sent home. But she felt safer at Se>Eye>Chen, so she made her way back, snuck in during the night, and crashed on the couch.

The Lummi Indian Nation opened Se>Eye>Chen Youth Wellness Home in April 2005 for children ages 8 - 18 as part of its larger Community Mobilization Against Drugs, or CMAD, program. Children are referred to Se>Eye>Chen by courts, schools or social services.

But the program at Se>Eye>Chen is 60 - 90 days. ''Most come back,'' mental health counselor Nicole Bryan said, adding that young people are attracted by the stability and support.

Darrell Hillaire, former chairman of the Lummi Indian Nation, recognized that many children leave Se>Eye>Chen only to return to troubled homes, where they are at risk of getting back into trouble. Some children are homeless. What was needed was a long-term place where young people could get the support they need to stay healthy and concentrate on their education - a place, Hillaire said, ''to give them hope, an alternative and a choice.''

The Lummi Youth Academy was born.

The residential academy, across the street from Lummi High School, opens Sept. 5, just in time for the 2008 - 09 school year. The academy has the capacity for 40 residents, but will initially open with 15.

The grand opening takes place Sept. 18 at 3 p.m. The opening will include a traditional blessing, a keynote speaker, ribbon cutting and dinner.

The academy, built at a cost of $2.1 million, was funded in part by the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, The Cummings Foundation, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services.

While students who will live at the academy come from troubled backgrounds, they have high expectations for themselves. These students live at the academy because they want to be there.

''These kids have dreams,'' Hillaire said. ''We want them to take advantage of the support they're getting and pursue those dreams.''

Students must apply for a spot at the academy. Applicants are screened by a committee of five people; students must commit to staying alcohol- and drug-free and their parents must agree to be involved in their child's educational endeavors. If they stay clean and study, they can stay until they graduate. A staff of 19 is on hand to help.

The staff includes a teacher, advisers and mentors, a chemical dependency counselor, and a cook. One of the mentors is a 24-year-old smokehouse leader.

''Parents are welcome to visit anytime and we encourage meals together,'' Hillaire said. But students spend their nights at the academy. ''Our goal is education. It's all about preparing to learn.''

At orientation meetings over the summer, students wrote the academy's mission statement - to practice hard work, fun, trust, respect, healing and love. Academy residents live up to those commitments by asking for help, being positive and finding the good in things, learning to forgive and forget, participating in celebrations and spiritual gatherings, remembering that trust needs to be earned and honored, showing compassion and empathy toward others, and being there for one another.

There is public support for the academy. More than 71 percent of respondents to an evaluation of CMAD, submitted in March to the U.S. Justice Department, called for improved outreach to those in need, better aftercare support and more prevention services for young people of the community.

''Our elders have always said our children deserve to know love, happiness and understanding in the home, which aids the promotion of community wellness,'' Hillaire said.

And to be successful and be positive family role models, children need education, he said.

Higher-education opportunities abound in the region. Northwest Indian College, on the Lummi reservation, offers two- and four-year degrees and has an educational relationship with the University of Washington Friday Harbor Labs, a marine research center on San Juan Island. Located nearby are Bellingham Technical College, Whatcom Community College and Western Washington University. Eighty-nine miles south is Seattle, home of the University of Washington and other major universities.

In 2004, almost 85 percent of Lummi in Whatcom County age 25 to 64 had a high school diploma or GED. But only 9 percent had a bachelor's degree or higher, according to the CMAD evaluation.

Lummi officials hope to see those numbers - and the lives of academy residents - improve.

''We value education,'' Lummi Chairman Henry Cagey said. ''Education unlocks the doors to financial security, self-sufficiency and the creation of healthy families and their pathways to healing from past trauma.''

John Jefferson, 49, a mentor at the academy, has walked the road that many of the academy residents have. And he knows it's possible to live a healthy, rewarding life.

His mom passed away when he was 11 and his dad tried to medicate his own grief with alcohol. Jefferson started drinking too. As a teenager, he dropped out of school to work as a commercial fisherman and help support his younger siblings.

''I held my own. I made money to help support the younger kids. But I still had the addiction.''

Jefferson said the academy would have made a big difference in his life had it existed when he was a teen.

''I was lost at age 11, when I was in the sixth grade. The academy would have saved my life.''

His message to academy residents: ''Welcome to a new way of life. If you want to be in school, I'm here to help you.''

He added, ''These kids know different drugs. They see a lot of it. They have no support; their parents are not active in their games. I'll be there to support them and cheer them on. I'm there to help them if they to want me to.

''It's a good opportunity for the community to help our children out. There are a lot of kids that struggle and the percentage of kids that graduate is really low, but I predict that will be going up in couple of years.''

Contact: Lummi Youth Academy, 2334 Lummi View Drive, Bellingham, WA 98226, (360) 758-4108, or e-mail darrell.

salishyouth@gmail.com.

Richard Walker is a correspondent reporting from San Juan Island, Wash. Contact him at rmwalker@rockisland.com.