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Healing power

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American Indian Boys & Girls Clubs strengthen bonds, relationships

CROFTON, Md. - Lasaro Cortez-Quintero doesn't have time for hanging out with gangs. The 14-year-old Native from Minnesota doesn't want to drink alcohol or take drugs. As he himself would tell you, he is a young man on a mission.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of the White Earth Reservation recently recognized his character, leadership and volunteerism by naming him a local ''Youth of the Year,'' an achievement that makes him eligible to compete for the statewide title.

The Boys & Girls Clubs of America provides a venue that encourages youth to change their lives, and success stories such as Cortez-Quintero's echo beyond the boundaries of reservations, a trend that has swept across Indian country. What started 16 years ago in Pine Ridge, S.D., home of the first chartered BGC on Indian land, has expanded into a network of 200-plus Native clubs nationwide.

This movement has achieved critical mass, with 18 new Native clubs in seven states reaching youth with positive program alternatives. Tribal communities see firsthand that BGCA programs work. But that's not the surprising part - these new Native clubs are affecting communities outside their reservations.

Historic merger

In a historic example, a local club in Minnesota merged with the White Earth Tribal Council. The White Earth Tribal Recreation Program and the BGCWER have united to broaden their youth development reach with a yearly budget that more than doubled to $1 million.

Tim Reiplinger, CEO of the White Earth Club, considers the merge ''a huge success,'' as it increases the number of youth served from 500 to 1,000. ''If we didn't have these additional clubhouses, many children would be left out. Now, most all reservation youth will be affected.'' Seven affiliate clubs will be chartered by 2010, with five already in place.

Mike Swan, BGCWER board president, said the merger eliminates duplication and competition between agencies for teenagers. ''Reaching teens is no easy task, especially in three communities in such a large area.''

He credits the White Earth recreation program as the impetus in retaining teens. ''Before merging, their staff had an excellent rapport with teens. So when the merge took place, teens naturally followed.''

The mix of younger and older members has created a fresh dynamic.

''With the merger, we are demonstrating that our BGC is for everyone, including teens,'' Swan said. ''As they interact with younger members, teen perception improves of what it's like to be involved with younger members and ultimately what it is to be a part of the BGCA family.''

Participants have observed a new synergy between the club and the tribal council. With the merger, he explained, the club has been looking into incorporating each agency's separate policies.

Successes noted

Swan said the merger has seen very positive and surprising results. Communities outside reservations are noticing a change in youth and have asked how they can start their own BGCs. Swan noted that without BGCs, outlying communities would not have typically worked with White Earth. ''Uniting Native and non-Native Americans is an excellent return on the federal investment,'' he said.

Tribes are also seeing a return on their investments in youth development. The Bear River Band of the Rohnerville Rancheria has contributed funds to the BGC of the Redwoods, which recently added the BGC of Wiyot Country to its family of clubs.

This contribution is ''huge'' in that the BGCA has united two very different tribes, said Jeff Jacobs, CPO of the Redwoods clubs. In fact, the Bear River community plans to transport its children to the WCC's summer program. ''This makes us extremely proud of our involvement,'' he added.

As tribes connect through children in the WCC another unlikely example of Native and non-Native communities finding common ground emerged. Wiyot Country, near the city of Eureka, is a northern California coastal area known for its majestic redwood forests. It is also known for an event that occurred 148 years ago that ''still burns in the memory of the Wiyot people as if it had happened yesterday,'' according to Wiyot Tribe writings.

Since 1860, the Wiyot community has experienced effects from a massacre that devastated Indian Island, the ''center of the Wiyot world.'' Since then, varying degrees of reparation ensued, but not until 2006 did the community begin recovering - when the Eureka City Council approved a resolution to return 60 acres of Indian Island to the Wiyot Tribe.

Through children of the Wiyot Country club, a ''true healing process'' continues. ''No one envisioned the impact that BGC programs would have on not only Wiyot children, but many children of non-Native ancestry,'' Jacobs said. Through this club, a traditional coming-of-age ceremony for young women of any ancestry is being reintroduced on Indian Island after having been nonexistent since the massacre.

The WCC also offers headdress and regalia creative activities that appeal to all children, regardless of ancestry. Community enrichment is improving, with plans for a baseball diamond under way in an area that has never seen a recreational or sports ground.

''This is proof that federal and tribal dollars are working. Native American BGCs are impacting children inside and outside reservation boundaries,'' Jacobs said.

Antidote to despair

For 400,000-plus Native youth on reservations, statistics are dire. Thirty-two percent live below the poverty level, 19 percent have no parent in the work force, 46 percent never finish high school and only 17 percent attend college. The suicide rate among American Indians is 62 percent higher than all other Americans, and alcohol mortality is 510 percent greater than all other races combined.

Recognizing cultural differences in Indian country, BGCA developed programs such as T.R.A.I.L, SMART Moves and Native American Mentoring, targeting issues unique to Native youth. Since 1992, BGCA has united the federal government, tribal governments, Native communities and other organizations to serve some 140,000 Indian youth in 25 states.

Tribal trust in BGCA programs is a testament to the confidence developed over several years. New American Indian BGCs include Tohono O'Odham Nation and Dine' Nation Chinle Unit, Ariz.; Pomo Nation and Wiyot Country, Calif.; White Earth Reservation Little Earth and Leech Lake, Minn.; Lumbee Tribe, N.C.; Grand River, N.D.; Osage Nation, Okla.; Rosebud, Grand River and Yankton Sioux, S.D.; and Sokaogon Chippewa Community, Wis.

For more information, call (866) NACLUBS or visit www.naclubs.org.