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Kalle Benallie
Indian Country Today 

After struggling with adjusting to the pandemic, a division of Boys and Girls Clubs of America that focuses on Native youth was pleasantly surprised to learn in December that they can fall back on a portion of the $30 million from a South Dakota foundation.

Issues like food insecurity, mental health, academic success and technology barriers were of concern, said Carla Knapp, national vice president of the club’s Native Services division and citizen of the Penobscot Indian Nation.

“The strength that those clubs have shown using their resources, providing for their communities has been inspiring because for me they faced every challenge with compassion and care,” she said.

The Boys and Girls Clubs of America received a $30 million donation from the South Dakota-based Larson Family Foundation, a portion of the money will go to Native youth clubs and other rural clubs in South Dakota.

The foundation asked the money to be allocated over two years to clubs around the state: the Missouri River Area, Lower Brule, Standing Rock and Rosebud and other rural clubs. An endowment was also established to help sustain each club beyond the two years.

The donation for clubs, especially rural clubs, are beneficial because of the stability it provides on paying staff and having consistent funding, Pat Breen, executive director of the Missouri River Area branch, said.

“It really allows you to focus on kids and provide the resources, such as the meals that we were giving out; whatever we need to serve our kids,” he said.

Native Services supports 207 Native youth clubs from 132 federally recognized tribes across the country. Urban Indian centers, Bureau of Indian Education schools and residential halls are also supported.

Breen said prior to the pandemic there were about 1,200 youth members in the Missouri River Area, which comprises clubs in the Wagner and Marty communities. However, the number of youth members have been restricted significantly for social distancing purposes.

Pandemic struggles for staff included switching to virtual programming, trying to be creative in their activities and reaching out to the youth members. Some staff helped work with Indian Health Services for children experiencing suicidal thoughts and tendencies during isolation.

“Staff were basically making phone calls to kids,” Breen said. “We started doing care packaging, delivering some meals to kids and families who we knew were in need.”

Maintaining the relationships they build with the children are the most important aspect of the Boys and Girls Clubs of America and the donation will help support that effort.

“They want to come here to feel safe. They want to be recognized and they want to see the familiar faces,” he said.

(Related: ‘Healing Power’)

(Photo courtesy of Brianna Sachs)
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(Photo courtesy of Brianna Sachs)

One of Native Services’ goals is for their clubs to have culturally relevant resources, programs and tools in their Native communities. Additionally, they assist local clubs and clubs under tribes by strengthening their services.

“We believe when you can identify that sense of belonging, sense of pride, sense of identity that we can really drive outcome,” Knapp said.

Jolene, a staff member of the Wagner club and Yankton Sioux tribal citizen, first joined the Marty club as a Native youth when she was 16 because of the violin program, an instrument she used to play.

For two years she worked her way from mentoring kids to being a junior staff member. And is now continuing to work in art-based programs.

She said she learned about work ethic, time management and responsibility. She also learned about the community-building BGCA clubs create.

“The club is a family, I didn’t know that before, I just thought it was a place that kids went to have fun,” Jolene said. “It’s a lot more than that. We spend a lot of time getting to know each other throughout the days. It’s really a place where we can go to talk to each other.”

Jolene is immensely grateful for the foundation donation and how it will impact her club.

“Their generosity has helped us continue to serve our community, it’s helped keep the smile on the kids faces, help feed the kids even help get the kids get presents for Christmas,” she said.

Knapp added that they are cognizant that Native youth club members may one day help their communities, and strive to serve them to the best of their ability.

“All of the resources, programs that our clubs are providing are preparing them to be those future leaders,” she said. 

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3/11: This story has been updated to clarify donation gift

Kalle Benallie, Navajo, is a reporter-producer at Indian Country Today's Phoenix bureau. Follow her on Twitter: @kallebenallie or email her at Benallie was once the opening act for a Cirque Du Soleil show in Las Vegas.

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