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Maliseets launch $1.7M employment program

HOULTON, Maine – Brenda Commander, chief of the Houlton Band of Maliseet Indians, was at a United South and Eastern Tribes annual meeting in late September when tribal members called her with the good news: the tribe had received a $250,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Agriculture Rural Development program for a new health center.

All that’s needed now is a matching grant of $650,000 from Housing and Urban Development for the project to move forward.

“The tribal members were so excited. We’ve been trying to find funding for a health center and we kind of failed at the first round, and picked it back up and corrected the weaknesses and reapplied, and we’re waiting right now for HUD to announce whether we’re going to be funded. We need HUD to come in with the other portion or the Rural Development grant goes away,” Commander told Indian Country Today.

The tribal government provides an array of health services to its members, but both facilities and staff are scattered. Some staff is in cramped offices at the tribal administration building, others at a health clinic in a converted house in the tribal housing neighborhood. The tribe also has a small ambulatory health clinic.

“We actually took one of the HUD houses and transformed it into a clinic where the doctors and nurses are. It was a very hard decision for the leadership to take that home and make it a health clinic because we’re so lacking in housing, like every other tribal community in the state, but that’s all we really had.”

So, if the HUD grant comes through, it will provide both a new health center that will consolidate all of the tribe’s health services and staff under one roof and also free up a home for a family that needs one.

Among the health department’s current services are medical checkups by a doctor and nurse practitioner, a diabetes program, substance abuse counseling, a domestic violence response program and exercise programs at the Maliseet Wellness Center.

If the HUD funding comes through, the new health center will be located near the housing neighborhood, gym and recreation center where members will have easy access to it.

The center may also provide a few new jobs. The health department intends to expand its offerings to include traditional Wabanaki medicines.

“We’re trying to incorporate some more traditional medicine to be at that health facility. There are several ladies who know so much about these traditional medicines of Native Americans and they want to help us, and we really want to include the more holistic Native values for the members of our tribe who use that medicine from the ancestors,” Commander said.

Meanwhile, with a $1.7 million grant from the Department of Education, Vocational Rehabilitation Service Projects for American Indians with Disabilities, the tribe is setting up a program that will help all tribal members with disabilities receive job training, placement and mentoring. The program will be available to members of all the Wabanaki tribes in the state – the Maliseets, the Penobscot Indian Nation, the Passamaquoddy Indians and the Aroostook Band of Micmac Indians.

There is no program currently in the state that specifically identifies Natives with disabilities or gathers statistical information.

“It’s really a lack we’ve seen for some time and the state recognizes that. Sometimes also, Native people get pulled into the state program and then find themselves on long waiting lists, and sometimes they get discouraged and give up. So this is a program we’ve been working on for the past couple of years and we thought it would be such a great benefit to all the tribal communities in reaching out to them and letting them know this is available.”

Some people worry that they will lose their Social Security disability benefits if they return to work, but they can work up to a certain number of hours each week and retain their benefits, Commander said.

Rather than have tribal members travel to a state site, the program will provide vocational rehabilitation services at each tribal community. The services will also be provided by tribal members who know the cultural heritage and lifeways of the Wabanaki people.

The program will help people determine what kind of work they are interested in doing and help train them for it. It will also offer job search and placement assistance, and job retention and follow-up services.

Through a memorandum of understanding with the state’s vocational rehabilitation services, the tribe will maximize resources and access the state’s in-depth knowledge of the administrative federal rules and regulations that govern the grant. And though the state will not have any administrative capacity for the project, it will be available to help train staff, assist with the development of the program, serve on the advisory committee and enhance consumer service.

Four new full-time jobs will also be created: a director, one administrative assistant and two rehabilitation counselors.

“We’re really excited about this program. I think it will be so encouraging and it will give the members confidence in looking toward their futures. Even people with disabilities have things they want to do. They have dreams too, and I think this program will help show that their dreams are not unattainable.”