Illness forces longtime ICWA advocate to leave program she started

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DENVER – The Denver Indian Family Resource Center was dealt a serious blow in early July when its founding director, Phyllis Bigpond, known nationally for 40 years of community service work, was diagnosed with an inoperable brain tumor.

Bigpond had surgery in 2008 for a brain tumor, but returned to work and maintained her former pace at DIFRC serving Native children and their families under the Indian Child Welfare Act.

This time, doctors said further surgery would not be an option and Bigpond, of the Yuchi Tribe of Oklahoma, is now living near family members in the Toppenish community, Yakama Indian Reservation, Washington.

Denver Mayor John Hickenlooper proclaimed July 30 Phyllis J. Bigpond Day, noting that she “has devoted her life to improving the lives of American Indian families and children,” and the success of DIFRC and the comprehensive ICWA services in the city and state “are the legacy for which she is hereby honored.”

The proclamation was read at a reception on that day for the National Indian Child Welfare Association where DIFRC employees and Bigpond’s friends and associates gathered to honor her.

The proclamation noted that many organizations valued her “wisdom, generosity, tremendous commitment to the community and selfless devotion to helping people less fortunate in their lives.”

Since Bigpond’s departure, the DIFRC staff, working under two acting directors, is continuing ICWA work and the other programs of the agency.

“But it’s certainly not the same without Phyllis,” said Madonna Rogers, DIFRC office administrator and an acting co-director. “She is just one of a kind – so competent and caring. I can’t tell you how much she will be missed here.”

Recently, Bigpond oversaw a DIFRC survey and study among the Denver metro area’s nearly 30,000 Native residents from more than 60 tribal nations.

Called “Keeping the Circle Whole,” the study focused on mental health needs in the Indian community. It found a gap in culturally sensitive services.

Many of Bigpond’s earlier years of experience in nonprofit human service programs for the urban Indian population were in Arizona.

Before coming to Denver in 2000, she was executive director at Phoenix Indian Center and earlier was a clinical assistant professor at Arizona State University. In Phoenix she was also Arizona field officer for Save the Children and a coordinator and program development director of the Intertribal Council of Arizona. She was also a social service representative for the San Carlos, Ariz. agency.

She was a consultant for Columbia University, and for Oklahomans for Indian Opportunity. She received the Master of Social Work from Washington University and an undergraduate degree from Oklahoma State University.

Bigpond is an alumna of the Denver Community Leadership Forum and has received awards including the Outstanding Native American Leader from the Association of American Indian Social Work, Distinguished Alumni Award from Washington University’s George Warren Brown School of Social Work, Sewanee Hunt Leadership Award from the Denver Foundation, and the 2008 Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Award from Metropolitan State College of Denver.

She has also received awards from the Family Resource Center Association, the National Organization of Black Elected Legislators, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science’s Native American resource group, Native American Recognition Days and the Arizona State University School of Social Work.