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Catholic Social Services bridges the gap

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ST. FRANCIS, S.D. - One year into a grant which has funded mental health programs for tribal members across the state, more than 2,800 people have been served and the demand for services continues to grow.

Administrators of the programs discussed progress of the initiative in a session here Aug. 31.

As mental health services were pushed into obscurity by lack of federal funding in health programs, tribes began looking to partnerships to provide services to tribal members. Catholic Social Services stepped as a contractor on the Rosebud, Pine Ridge, Standing Rock and Cheyenne River Sioux reservations to assist tribal and state agencies in providing outreach services to rural tribal residents needing mental health and substance abuse treatment options.

The outreach program, funded by a $483,160 grant from the Robert Wood Foundation and local sources secured by the Western South Dakota Catholic Foundation, is starting the second year of its four-year commitment toward the effort.

Jim Kinyon, executive director of Catholic Social Services, noted that more than 2,800 people were served by the programs and the demand for services continues to grow.

Follow up care, which has been sorely needed in rural areas where people often don't have transportation, was lacking, Kinyon said. In addition, qualified personnel to provide the services are hard to come by because many private mental health practitioners are unavailable to rural residents.

Seven offices have been set up to serve the wide geographical area and services catering to the individual needs of each of the communities have been established. The programs, which include parenting education, sobriety circles, support for local Alcoholics Anonymous meetings, stress management for farmers and ranchers, prevention programs for local school children, counseling for families, support services for victims of abuse and counseling for those suffering from mental illness, have begun to turn life around for families falling through the cracks, he said.

An alcohol recovery program and counseling efforts for her children made the difference for Patsy Left Hand Bull who said she was overwhelmed by a feeling of hopelessness and her battle finally forced her to move back to the reservation because she feared she was losing.

"I came back in 1983 to die of alcoholism. Instead, I sobered up. I've been sober for 17 years. I couldn't help my children until I could help myself," she said.

Left Hand Bull attended the St. Francis Catholic Boarding School as a child. She recalled some of the harsher moments of her time at the school and talked about how harsh discipline had made her associate the campus with violence. Despite the past, she said she was willing to overlook how she was treated and support a new initiative to solve family problems.

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While Left Hand Bull worked to turn her life around, the mother of 10 children who is helping to raise three of her grandchildren, said the aftermath of the long bout with alcoholism took its toll on her family. One daughter committed suicide. Some of her children succumbed to alcoholism and she watched them do destructive things to one another, she said.

The counseling programs have helped her deal with the grief at the loss of her daughter and helped mend ties with her remaining children who have also been struggling with their own problems stemming from the dysfunctional family life.

"I wouldn't be here if I didn't believe in what Catholic Social Services is doing," she said.

Assistant U.S. Attorney Sandy Galluzzo, formerly a tribal judge, said she sees the programs making a difference in the communities. The former tribal judge said she sent many troubled individuals to counseling and watched them turn their lives around.

U.S. Senate Minority Leader Tom Daschle, D-S.D., said approaching issues of poverty will require more than lip service.

"I applaud those at social services to making this a better place. It takes a special kind of person to deal with what they see every day," Daschle said.

"I see things improving slowly. The more partnerships we form, the better off we are," said Tribal Chairman William Kindle.

The agency relies more heavily on group and educational programs as the demand for individual counseling exceeds its ability to provide these services in most regions, Kinyon said.

Success of the outreach efforts is largely because of the coordinated effort of local department of social services offices, tribal judges, church parishes and school districts quick to invite CSS to help them reach out to families and individuals in need, he said.

While much has been accomplished in the first year, the agency may have made its first pitch for new funds to keep the programs afloat after grant funds are spent. It will look to other benefactors, but eventually other sources including tribal and federal funds may have to replace the grant monies for the survival of the programs, Kinyon said.