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Volunteering has an international flair

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DENVER – The wide green lawn in front of Denver Indian Center may become orchard and garden through the help of local and international volunteers as part of a youth-centric, late-July frenzy of farming, playing lacrosse or basketball, interviewing elders, and painting murals with youngsters.

DIC, with the International People’s Project of CISV, an international peace organization, is working to develop a sustainable relationship of volunteerism with local businesses through Business Service Corps LLC which in turn seeks to create a “legacy of social responsibility” for its clients.

Some 20 participants from the U.S. and Germany, Sweden, Egypt, Spain, the Netherlands and the Philippines joined volunteers from Microsoft, Sprint, Avaya, Pepsi, and others in conducting a youth camp, decorating classrooms for an early education center, and talking with elders in an oral history documentation project that may become part of a public television presentation on “Urbanizing the American Indian.”

“I think we are going to start seeing that we are a lot closer as global citizens than we think we are,” Jay Grimm, Diné, DIC director, said. Of the youthful volunteers from abroad, “The connection between their lives and our community is wonderful – these kids are embracing them wholeheartedly.”

“If our kids don’t like it, they just won’t come back. But these kids have come back every day.” – Jay Grimm, Denver Indian Center director

Many Americans know as little about indigenous culture as do the international volunteers, he said, noting in an orientation session for IPP volunteers that both Diné and Swedish folk-dances followed the direction of the sun.

“Emerging from a long history of settler oppression, many 21st century American Indians and Alaska Natives still live on reservations without running water,” said an IPP statement about the DIC project. “But the indigenous of Denver, Colo. have looked as far as the Philippines for the progression of their people and the preservation of their tribal cultures.”

Grimm told volunteers that the Denver Native community is growing rapidly and has reached approximately 30,000 people in the metro area as part of a national trend in which about 70 percent of American Indians now live off-reservation.

In what he described as the “only negative” he would discuss, he noted that although Natives in Denver are about 1.2 to 1.4 percent of the population, they represent 15 percent of school dropouts.

Itziar Ezquiaga, Madrid, Spain, a youth camp volunteer, said that because “Natives have the highest dropout rate in the United States, some of the games are geared to showing the benefits of higher education.”

An IPP description of the project explained that Native students have the lowest graduation rate in Colorado, with only 55.9 percent graduating in the 2008-09 school year, and its collaboration effort with DIC is to “address some of the complexities facing Native cultures in an urban setting.”

Benje Lefers, 27, from Hamburg, Germany, a former youth camper, said she is a 16-year CISV volunteer and camp leader who has stressed “getting kids to know others from different cultures in ways you usually don’t know as a kid.”

Working with the DIC camp for those ages 9-14 is enjoyable, she said, and it is “very gratifying” to take youngsters from one setting to another “and see how they grow within the program.” Lefers noted that CISV for more than 50 years has placed 11 year olds from 65 countries in international peace camps.

In addition to the youth and other activities ongoing by local and international participants, volunteers from Woodbine Ecology Center south of Denver were preparing soil in front of DIC for a pumpkin patch and indigenous plants.

“We are working on a design for the preschool sensory garden courtyard area,” Shannon Francis, Woodbine indigenous permaculture coordinator/instructor said. “We will plant native plants with raised beds, a vermicomposting pile, a living fence, and a possible living hoop house.”

Cristin Tarr, IPP worldwide director and managing director of Business Service Corps LLC, Denver, said she has volunteered with CISV on a personal level over time and BSC is involved on a volunteer basis with the organization.

“DIC is a unity of tribes, and we’re bringing in a unity of the world. There’s just such synergy here – opportunities to learn and grow and learn about each other. It’s also important for non-U.S. citizens to learn about our indigenous cultures.”

DIC responded to a request for proposals issued by BSC and won out in competition with others because it offered “several programming opportunities we could get involved in,” she said, noting South Metro Denver Chamber of Commerce will also be a part of the project.

Through a needs assessment, BSC determines a defined project with ongoing needs to build a sustainable collaboration and then seeks a for-profit business with a similar mission, according to the BSC Web site, striving to strike “a balance of social change with the organization’s bottom line.”

Was it a successful week for the young “clients?” “If our kids don’t like it, they just won’t come back,” Grimm said. “But these kids have come back every day.”