WALTHILL, Neb. (AP) – At the age of 4, Karen Hardenbrook wanted to be an American Indian.
A Methodist preacher and his wife had adopted her when she was just 4 months old. Growing up in Broken Bow, the young girl knew nothing about her real parents.
But when a preschool teacher asked her what she wanted to be when she grew up, Hardenbrook fashioned a hat out of paper.
“What I wanted to be when I grew up was an Indian,” she said. “So I made a chief’s hat.”
As she grew older, she began wearing moccasins and putting her hair in braids and told strangers she met she was Native.
“I guess I always noticed my skin was a little bit darker than everybody else’s,” she said. “I thought, ‘Maybe I could be an Indian?’”
At the age of 21, she proved her suspicions right.
Looking at her adoption records, she learned her biological mother was an Omaha tribal member.
A week later, she met the Omaha grandmother who had prayed for her return. A week after that, she met her birth mother for the first time.
That was 31 years ago.
On Sept. 13, 2008, she moved to Walthill – on the reservation – to take care of her ailing birth mother.
And to help her ailing people.
“I came home,” she said.
Having spent years working with people in poverty through AmeriCorps and church programs, Hardenbrook decided to start an outreach center for Native people living on the Omaha Reservation in northeast Nebraska.
She founded Mi’Jhu’Wi Ministries with her husband, Johnny Hardenbrook, and others who want to help the Omaha people and fight poverty, she said.
In June, Mi’Jhu’Wi Ministries – named after her Omaha name, which means “happy person” – got a boost when a Walthill nonprofit organization, the Coalition for a Better Community, lent the Hardenbrooks a building to use. In exchange, they will renovate the structure.
The former convenience store needs many repairs, but the Hardenbrooks aren’t waiting for money to start the project before they start helping others.
They’ve hosted donation drives and have given away beds and clothing. In May, a Seward church group drove a U-Haul filled with donations to Mi’Jhu’Wi Ministries to distribute the clothing, toys and furniture.
“What we’re basically here for is to bridge that gap between the two cultures and to help fight poverty,” Karen Hardenbrook said.
Johnny Hardenbrook has been working with Coalition for a Better Community to demolish old houses. A carpenter by trade, he has also helped the group by refurbishing homes.
Meanwhile, the Hardenbrooks have been working to gain nonprofit status for Mi’Jhu’Wi Ministries and
organize a board of directors.
“We’re small, but we’re growing, and I think we have a lot of ideas and hope for the people that I think will really help them,” Karen Hardenbrook said.
She said organizations such as Mi’Jhu’Wi Ministries are needed on the Omaha Reservation, which has high poverty and unemployment rates.
Thurston County’s population is 52 percent Indian, according to the 2000 Census, and it’s home to the Winnebago and Omaha tribes. The county had a 10.2 percent unemployment rate in June, the highest rate for any Nebraska county.
On June 30, the Omaha Tribe closed its CasinOmaha in nearby Onawa, Iowa, laying off about 185 mostly tribal employees.
In Macy, where the Omaha Tribe is headquartered, 46 percent of families live below the poverty level, according to the census.
Karen Hardenbrook said she’s hopeful Mi’Jhu’Wi Ministries will continue to serve as an outreach hub for others who want to help the Omaha people.
“I think we’re giving people hope because they’re seeing things that to them look impossible,” she said. “We just want to be that little light shining out.”
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