Suicide and Bullied Survivors Now Thrive in the Bear Program

The Be Excited About Reading (Bear) Program in South Dakota builds self-confidence in Native American students to help prevent suicide and bullying.

Tyrell Pond, 12, Lakota, had been bullied from first through fourth grade, but when he joined the Be Excited About Reading (Bear) Program in Pine Ridge, South Dakota everything turned around. “I was getting depressed,” he said. “But after I joined the Bear Program, the bullying stopped.”

Tyrell’s father Richard Pond, Lakota, said, “The program really helped build Tyrell’s self-confidence, and from the exposure of telling his story, now the bullies are his friends.”

Richard added that Tyrell has become a role model and “a mini-celebrity… He is more outgoing now. And it helped us, too. We communicate better.”

The Bear Program was started 12 years ago by Yvonne “Tiny” DeCory. She recognized that even though some students were promoted to the next grades, they were struggling with reading. Tiny joined forces with her daughter Laticia DeCory and her nephew, Leonard Jack. “We put our heads together and partnered with the Oglala Lakota College and we started identifying families.”

In order for students to join the program, parents also had to be excited about reading. Without the parent, the child couldn't enroll. “They had to be there, and we identified parents who couldn't read and we taught them how to read,” Tiny said.

“When we read a story about Barney, we have a Barney costume, and then that character would come to life. If we read a story about how the eagle flies high into the sky, Wanble the eagle came out from behind the tree. We kept them engaged in their learning,” DeCory explained.

Todd O’Bryan, Lakota, school board member of the Shannon School Board for 16 years, said, “I see a big change in the kids she’s worked with. Kids who are struggling with life, she makes them feel good about themselves. When kids feel good about themselves, they will be more successful.”

One student, Shawn Keith, 23, Lakota, has been in the program since the beginning and said it has changed his life. He added that being in costume makes it easy to share their stories, which might include sexual abuse or drug and alcohol abuse. The students write the skits and perform them for different age groups. Tiny said she is a big proponent of kids helping kids.

Keith said the program has taught him a lot about life skills, while another member, Ezra Zephier, 22, Lakota, said the program is teaching him to be a hero. Both Keith and Zephier have received training on identifying students at risk for suicide, and they have gone to homes on suicide calls.

All program members receive some training that may identify bullying, suicide risks and American Indian Life Skills. “We get them trained so they are really responsive, and don’t freeze up on me,” Tiny said. “They have lost too many of their friends and they are not going to tolerate it anymore.”

So far, the program has existed without government or tribal funding. “We are funded by the hearts of people. People send us donations, books, and pencils,” Tiny said.

The group charges a performance fee and has traveled to several states to perform. “We used to be small but now we are kinda big,” Tiny said with a smile.

See the Bear Program perform here: