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Building trust

ATCHISON, Kan. — For more than 60 years, St. Francis Community Services has served as an instrument for healing in the lives of children and families in crisis. Now, they’re partnering with the Prairie Band Potawatomi Nation of Kansas to build trust in the lives of youth in the child welfare system.

The Potawatomi awarded a grant to the organization’s Atchison Lodge, which provides a day camp and life skills training to youth in the Independent Living program. The Lodge is located on 188 acres of a beautiful wooded area just on the outskirts of downtown Atchison, birthplace of famed aviator Amelia Earhart.

“This is a positive impact of gaming revenue,” said Prairie Band Potawatomi Chairman Steve Ortiz.

According to the Band’s, Web site, one percent of all net tribal gaming revenues are given to charitable organizations. Since 1998, the tribe has given more than $6 million in charitable contributions to surrounding communities and organizations.

“We were just so excited that they recognized this could really help children and youth,” said Sharon Ringler, vice president of St. Francis Community Services.
Ringler and other representatives from St. Francis Community Services honored the Potawatomi Dec. 2 with a luncheon and a plaque presentation at the Atchison Lodge. Ortiz was on hand to accept the plaque on behalf of the tribe and received a tour of the facilities.

Father Ed Fellhauer, president, CEO and Dean of St. Francis gave the presentation. “It’s an honor to be able to do this,” he said.

With the grant provided by the Potawatomi, St. Francis has been able to make upgrades and additions to a “low ropes” challenge course located on the grounds of the facility. In the challenge course, kids of all ages and backgrounds navigate through a series of obstacles that require teamwork. The course is used as a tool to build confidence and self-esteem. But perhaps most importantly, the challenge course builds trust.
“When you work with the children we work with, they don’t have that trust,” Ringler said.

She said many of these children come from homes where neglect and abuse occurred. “It’s very difficult for them to learn to trust again.”

“When they finish with that, they’re just in awe. It really teaches you how to work together.”

One of the goals of the challenge course is for children to carry a regained sense of trust back into their homes, schools and communities.

Ortiz said he first saw a challenge course when he enlisted in the Marines at 17.

“Challenge courses really make a difference in children’s lives,” Ortiz told the group. “What you’re trying to do is really great.”

Ortiz said in his 10 years serving on tribal council, he has seen first-hand the need to help youth and families in crisis. “We’re trying to look for answers too.”

St. Francis Community Services has been a donor supported child welfare ministry since 1945. Multiple programs include adoption and foster care services, family preservation and reintegration, community outreach, and alcohol and drug treatment and prevention. The organization serves more than 2,000 children per day, Ringler said.

A project in the works between St. Francis and the Potawatomi is a plan to set up teepees at the site for camping, meetings and group events. Ringler said Jeanette Little Sun and other tribal representatives will be directly involved in making the materials, assembling and setting up the teepees in time for the 2009 Memorial Day weekend. Also planned is an educational training video about the teepees for tribal youth.

“They feel that’s being lost in their culture,” Ringler said.

Ringler has been with St. Francis for 19 years. She said she is excited about working with the Potawatomi.

“It’s really been so much fun. It has been a terrific beginning.”

Lorraine Jessepe can be reached at