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New director asked to revitalize Lincoln Indian Center

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LINCOLN, Neb. - Board members at the Lincoln Indian Center are banking on strong leadership to bring life to new programs and revitalize a center that once served as the hub of activity for many of Nebraska's urban American Indians.

The first step, said board member Beau Bordeaux, was hiring new executive director Kay Bursheim, who grew up on the Lake Traverse Reservation in northeast South Dakota.

Bursheim said she learned her greatest lessons growing up on her family's farm. As the middle child of 17, Bursheim helped rear her younger brothers and sisters. Life on the secluded farm, which lacked running water or electricity, was difficult by today's standards, she said.

"When you were raised in an environment of that nature, you were taught to always work hard."

Bordeaux said he believed the diligence Bursheim learned on the farm is likely to help her revive struggling programs and lay the foundation for new ones.

The Dakota and Santee Sioux woman spent 30 years teaching students from early childhood to the college level and helped found and direct various American Indian education programs and associations.

Bursheim was one of four people who were interviewed from among eight applicants, Bordeaux said.

The center, once a thriving, gathering place for urban American Indian people, fell on hard times in recent years with political upheaval and what seemed like a revolving door of directors, at least four directors in the past five years, Bordeaux said.

However, he said he hopes the new director will breath new life into the center by helping it develop much-needed cultural and language programs as well as offering a daycare and Head Start program.

Bursheim already opened her office door to board members and is ready to start improving accountability and stability at the center, he said.

"She is new to us and we're new to her. She seems like a sincere person."

Bordeaux, chairman of the policy and program committee, said one of the immediate problems Bursheim inherited centers around accountability to agencies that fund the center.

"We want to strengthen some of the policies we do have and some new ones so we have greater accountability," he said.

"Kay seems to be pretty good at handling people and puts people at ease. She seems to know a lot about grants."

A sorely needed youth program was nearly lost because a grant was allowed to expire with no attempt to renew it, but Bordeaux said Bursheim has begun working on a continuing grant proposal.

"This was something we couldn't afford to lose," he said.

Bursheim recently met with Bordeaux and two other board members to discuss a potential grant to complete repairs at the center and addition of a daycare facility on the grounds.

"The meeting was a big step," he said, in addressing some of the turmoil of recent years over center operation and accountability for delivery of services.

"She is a real pleasure work with," Bordeaux said.

"We have made some good inroads. We have a director that can work with the fund-raisers."

Bursheim has experience networking with various agencies that assist in funding programs along with grant writing, he said.

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The center, with a service area extending from Scottsbluff to Omaha, suffered from stability problems in the past five years as four directors came and went. "(Funding agencies) would like to see more stability. Reporting has been our weakness. We know the money is being used for good things; it has just been the reporting that has been the problem. We're looking for strong leadership and I think she can provide that," he said.

The Indian Center Inc. is a community-based, nonprofit established in 1969. It is a member agency of the Lincoln Lancaster United Way. Funding for center programs also comes from federal and state agencies, local lending institutions, city and county government, local churches and foundations.

Although it was originally founded to provide Native Americans in Nebraska with the human services needed to become self-sufficient in an urban setting while retaining their cultural identity, it provides services to all eligible Nebraskans.

"I think Kay brings a good feeling to the center. She is a spiritual person, and she brings that spirituality to her job," board member Colleen Flores said.

Bursheim assumed her duties as director in April, about four months after Randy Ross resigned. Ross, who had held the post since September 1998, left to work for a technology research firm in Lincoln.

Bobby Robinette, the center's housing director, had been the interim director since January.

Most recently Bursheim was grant coordinator and human services planner for the Sisseton-Wahpeton Tribe. From July 1989 to August 1993 she was academic dean of the Nebraska Indian Community College.

Ed Red Owl, a Dakota and Santee Sioux from Sisseton, S.D., has known Bursheim since she was 6. He said she had worked hard to improve her tribe's quality of life.

"She was one of the first to pursue and succeed in higher education in our tribe," Red Owl said.

Bursheim graduated from Arizona State University in 1971 with an education degree. She is a member of the National Indian Education Association board and a member of the South Dakota and Nebraska association chapters.

She will administer commodities, housing, family support services, work training, youth services and health programs.

"There's a lot to be done," she said. "I want to make the Indian Center the star of the community."

Bursheim said one of her first duties would be to conduct a retreat for the center's board of directors and staff June 15-16. "That will give the direction for the center."

She says she hopes to bring people back to the center by fixing up the 22-year-old building and creating a positive image.

Frank Bear Killer, an Oglala Lakota, would like to see more communication between the center and Lincoln's American Indian community. He added he also hopes the center will again find funding for a juvenile-justice program.

"I would like to see more reaching out to the community."

Bordeaux said the center needs to address other issues facing the area's youth including homelessness among teen mothers since recent surveys suggest a large number of Native American mothers are living on the street.

While they are not literally on the street, he said many move from household to household because age restrictions prevent them from signing a lease for an apartment. Nebraska law requires renters to be at least 21, he said, but the Nebraska Legislature is working on a bill that would allow teens to sign a lease at 19.

He said if the measure passed, teen mothers who are eligible for a variety of programs could more readily access them through the center.

"Some people really utilize the facility and people really need our programs."

Bordeaux said he hopes Bursheim can bring people back to the center and that it will be again filled with activities for all ages.