Past becomes present

Camp for Native American youth draws on centuries of healthy tradition

PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Shannon Francis and Taloa Cardinal, 15, turn soil in preparation for a garden expansion.

Normally, the five Denver teens who gathered for breakfast at the Egg & I restaurant would have been cooking their own meals at the Four Winds American Indian Council building.

The recent diner meal was a rare exception for the youth, all participants in a summer camp for Native American teenagers. Still, it was clear from their conversation that tradition is at the core of the free eight-week experience.

Seventeen-year-old Katrina Her Many Horses, who recently graduated from the Denver Center for International Studies, talked about her family’s 22-hour drive to Louisiana for a powwow the previous week.

Roberto Ballesteros, 12, takes a seed packet from Shannon Francis, who teaches indigenous gardening.
PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Roberto Ballesteros, 12, takes a seed packet from Shannon Francis. Sisters Taloa Cardinal and Jasmine Anderson stand nearby.

Twelve-year-old Roberto Ballesteros, a student at West Leadership Academy, pulled up a picture on his smart phone of the red and white beaded bracelet he’d been making at camp. Jasmine Anderson, a soon-to-be senior at Denver’s South High School, shared photos of the traditional ribbon shirts the campers planned to work on next.

Formally called “Let’s Move in Indian Country Youth Cultural Camp,” the camp is the second iteration of a program begun last summer by the Denver Indian Family Resource Center in Lakewood. The first version was for students age six-17, but leaders decided they wanted to focus on teenagers.

“We know programs aren’t adapted to that generation of kids,” said Daryle Conquering Bear, healthy living assistant at the center.

A niche for Native youth

The camp provides a gathering place for Native youth, who often comprise small minorities in their schools.

With its focus on health, culture and leadership, there isn’t anything else like it in the area, said Terra Her Many Horses, co-leader of the camp and healthy living supervisor at the Denver Indian Family Resource Center in Lakewood.

The campers meet three days a week at the council building on 5th Ave. in Denver.
The campers meet three days a week at the council building on 5th Ave. in Denver.

In the 10-county Denver metro area, 48,000 residents consider themselves Native American, Alaskan Native or some portion thereof, according to 2012 estimates from the American Community Survey.

Elias Her Many Horses, 15, said the camp is a place “to bond with other kids” and has “a lot of activities to…keep us occupied.”

Fostering healthy habits among participants is also a priority.

“We know that historically there’s some health disparities in Indian Country,” said Conquering Bear. “With the rates of diabetes …and making healthier choices with eating.”

Sixty-five percent of Colorado’s American Indian and Alaskan Native adults are overweight or obese, according to data from the Colorado Department of Public Health and Environment. In addition, data from the federal government’s Office of Minority Health indicates that nearly 18 percent nationwide have diabetes, compared to about 7 percent of non-Hispanic whites.

Such statistics are part of the reason that campers learn gardening, take cooking classes and make breakfast and lunch together on most camp days. On their culinary to-do list this summer will be creating a healthier version of a fast food burger and a nutritious family meal with just $10 to spend at the grocery store.

Elias, who next year will be a junior at the Denver Center for International Studies, said cooking is one of his favorite parts of the camp. Among the dishes they’ve made so are are yogurt parfaits, turkey meatballs, chicken wraps and salads.

“Pretty soon we’re going to be able to grow some of our own ingredients,” he said.

Backyard transformation

That’s where the indigenous permaculture class, taught by Shannon Francis, comes in.

The idea is to teach the teens grow their own food, including traditional crops like the “three sisters” trio of corn, beans and squash. It’s also meant to incorporate Native American values such as respect, mindfulness and reciprocity.

Katrina Her Many Horses and camp co-leader Daryle Conquering Bear water the garden.
Katrina Her Many Horses and camp co-leader Daryle Conquering Bear water the garden.

These themes came through on a recent morning in the fenced back yard of the council building. Francis instructed the campers how to turn over the soil with their metal shovels.

“You’re not going to do too much stabbing because there’s a bunch of worms in here and you don’t want to chop all the worms in half,” she said.

Later, as the campers poked shallot, radish and mustard seeds into the loose dirt, Francis reminded them, “Always remember to keep talking to your seeds.”

Katrina Her Many Horses doesn’t have a home garden because she lives in an apartment, but said she enjoys gardening with Francis at camp.

“This is what our ancestors did back then, this type of gardening,” she said. “You know how farms have it in rows and stuff…This is more natural.”

Mixing traditional and modern

This summer, a dozen youth attend the camp, which meets all day Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday. As was true the day of the breakfast outing, turnout tends to be lower on Thursdays since many families use it as a travel day to attend pow wows.

The camp is funded with grants from five organizations including the Colorado Health Foundation, the Denver Indian Family Resource Center, the Peyback Foundation Running Strong for American Indian Youth and the N7 Fund.

Elias Her Many Horses helps move an old tire out of the way as the campers work to expand their garden.
PHOTO: Ann Schimke
Elias Her Many Horses helps move an old tire out of the way as the campers work to expand their garden.

In addition to traditional crafts, cooking and gardening, the camp puts an emphasis on physical fitness. Besides typical camp sports like swimming and horseback riding, participants will learn traditional Native American sports like lacrosse and its precurser, stickball.

“Everyone is coming from tribes that were physically active, so that’s what they’re trying to get back to,” said Terra Her Many Horses.

“We do a lot on how their ancestors lived,” she said.

There are also some distinctly modern elements woven through the experience. These include field trips to Native-owned businesses such as the restaurant Tocabe, Lakewood’s Belmar shopping center and the Denver-based American Indian College Fund. The campers, even the ones still in middle school, also practice writing college application essays.

“We really want them to think college,” said Conquering Bear.

Some of the older campers are already well on their way. Katrina has already earned a spot on the basketball team at Northeastern Junior College in Sterling for the fall. After that, her sights are set on the Ivy League.

“After this junior college, after I’ve given basketball a shot, I want to transfer to Dartmouth University,” she said. “That’s my main goal, to go there.”

Chalkbeat Colorado is a grantee of the Colorado Health Foundation.

How I Help

Why this high school counselor asks students, ‘What do you wish your parents knew?’

Today, we launch a new series called “How I Help,” which features school counselors, social workers and psychologists across Colorado. It is a companion to our popular “How I Teach” and “How I Lead” series.

Through “How I Help,” we hope to give readers a glimpse into the professional lives of school staff members who often work behind the scenes but nevertheless have a big impact on the day-to-day lives of students.

Our first “How I Help” features Cassie Poncelow, a counselor at Poudre High School in Fort Collins. She was the 2016 Colorado School Counselor of the Year and is one of six finalists for the 2018 National School Counselor of the Year award.

Poncelow talked to Chalkbeat about how she creates a legacy of caring, what teens want their parents to know and why peer-to-peer mentoring is better than a social-emotional curriculum taught by adults.

This interview has been condensed and lightly edited.

Why did you become a school counselor?
I was incredibly fortunate to have many powerful educators shape my life in my time as a student, but none did more so than my school counselors. My counselor from high school remains a dear friend and mentor. I knew that I wanted to be a part of what is happening in education and loved the diversity of the school counselor job. They get to collaborate with so many different stakeholders, get to know students in really cool ways and be involved with so many aspects of making change.

Cassie Poncelow

Tell us about an effort or initiative you spearheaded at your school that you’re particularly proud of.
Three years ago, we noticed that students were dropping out continuously because they were short on graduation credits and tired of taking the same classes over and over again. I worked with a team to create Opportunities Unlimited, which is a dropout recovery program for students ages 17-21 that is focused on GED completion and concurrent enrollment opportunities. A fifth cohort started this fall and the program has graduated 26 students in two years.

Is there a tool, curriculum or program you couldn’t live without in your job?
Our Ambassadors program is in many ways the backbone of our climate and culture at Poudre High School. This program trains 50 upperclassmen to mentor freshmen through a year-long curriculum that includes topics like stress management, suicide prevention and sexual assault. This mentoring model means that every freshman has an ambassador that is connecting with them for almost three hours each month. The ambassadors deliver comprehensive, peer-to-peer education that is far beyond and better than any social-emotional learning curriculum that counselors could facilitate. As the co-leader for this program, I also couldn’t live without the hope that this crew gives me. They are the best part of my job.

What’s the biggest misconception you’ve encountered about your role in the school(s) where you work?
I am grateful to work in a place and with people who see the vital role of school counselors and are eager to partner with them. In my time at Poudre High School we have added two new school counseling positions, further demonstrating our school’s belief in the work we do. I have worked at schools in the past that created a lot of systemic barriers to accessing school counselors and I think this was based on a misconception that we were a more frivolous part of services for students.

You spend lots of time with students. Knowing what you know, what advice would you give to parents?
I often ask my students, “What do you wish your parents knew?” What I hear consistently is a plea for them to remember what it was like to be 16: How painful and awkward it was, how boys were all the rage and not getting invited somewhere really was the actual worst.

So, I advise parents to remember that. And remember that a lot of what they dealt with at 16 is even more complicated by the world our kids are experiencing. Social media wasn’t a reality when they were kids and our current students have never known a world where mass shootings haven’t happened often. I know it’s no, “I walked uphill both ways without shoes in the snow,” but this is a scary time to be student — different, but equally hard. Our kids need us to hear them in that. And believe that they can change it.

Tell us about a time when you managed to connect with a challenging student or a student facing a difficult situation. How did you do it?
At my core, I think we all thrive on authentic relationships and I do whatever I can to create these with my students. I want each of my students to feel like I am truly in their corner and a champion not only of what they do but more so of who they are. I hope to not only live this, but to model it for my students in ways that inspire them to do the same.

This semester I have a freshman boy who was consistently skipping class (who knew gas station tacos were such a draw?) and failing multiple classes. His “consequence” is that he has to spend a period working on missing work in my office. I also have a slew of seniors who have made my office their home during this fifth hour, many who are excellent students and are just looking for a place to study. They have taken this freshman under their wing and are committed to his success far beyond what I could ever be. They are constantly asking about his upcoming exams, what he needs help with and celebrating his rising grades with him. I think I have built really authentic relationships with these upperclassmen who then remember what it means to feel connected and cared for and are passionate about showing this student just that. I often stress “legacy” to my students and this seems like a clear picture of that.

What is the hardest part of your job?
Kid stuff is hard. I hurt for kids a lot, as I think all educators do. They live lives far beyond our walls and far beyond what we could imagine and ever control. That’s the hardest. Close second would be trying to operate in a system that seems to be driven by folks who aren’t doing the work. I recognize that there are so many moving pieces and would love to have some of the actual “decision-makers” come spend the day in our role and better understand the work we do.

Tell us about a memorable time — good or bad — when contact with a student’s family changed your perspective or approach.
A year ago, I had a student who was really struggling with some significant mental health issues. I knew that we needed to bring in a parent but the girl was very anxious about this idea, to the point where she had literally crumpled up on my office floor. After calling her mom to meet with us, I joined her on the floor of my office to talk more. Her mom walked in shortly after, assessed the scene and sat right down on the floor with us, despite the chair-filled room. This move shifted everything and I was so grateful for her wisdom to be where her kid was at. It was a good reminder to me to do that always: be where kids are at.

You spend your days trying to help students and staff with any number of things. How do you wind down after a stressful day?
A lot of my unwinding still includes my students as I announce volleyball games or attend other sporting events or performances. I love these opportunities because they let me see my kids in a different light and remind me how awesome they are. I also spend as much time outside as possible, whether it’s going for a quick hike with my pup or a bike ride. Beyond traveling and reading, I cheer hard for the CSU Rams! Go State!

Big money

Millions in grant dollars will bring more counselors to Indiana’s underserved students

KIPP Indy was one of several schools in the county to receive a counseling grant.

Scores of Indiana schools were awarded private grants that will allow them to bolster counseling services for students, many of whom are lacking help for an increasing portfolio of problems, including fallout from the state’s drug epidemic and basic needs like advice on college applications.

The $26.4 million in grants, decided last month, include six for Marion County districts and charter schools. They were awarded by Lilly Endowment, a prominent Indianapolis-based philanthropy founded by key players in the pharmaceutical giant Eli Lilly.

The grants went to 52 school districts and five charter schools, covering about a third of the state’s counties. Based on enrollment, they ranged from about $68,000 to almost $3 million.

Lilly began its push to help schools build better counseling programs last year.

“The response from school corporations and charter schools far exceeded the Endowment’s expectations,” said Sara B. Cobb, the Endowment’s vice president for education. “We believe that this response demonstrates a growing awareness that enhanced and expanded counseling programs are urgently needed to address the academic, college, career, and social and emotional counseling needs of Indiana’s K-12 students.”

As Chalkbeat previously reported, school counselors have been stretched exceedingly thin in recent years, both in Indiana and across the country. On average, each Hoosier counselor is responsible for 630 students, making Indiana 45th out of 50 states and the District of Columbia for counselor-to-student ratios. The American School Counselor Association recommends a ratio of no higher than one counselor for every 250 students.

So far, state-led efforts to expand counseling have fallen short; a bill proposed in 2015 to require a counselor in every school was withdrawn for further study, and the issue hasn’t resurfaced significantly in the legislature since. At the time, cost was the sticking point.

Schools and districts had to apply for the grants and show how they would use the money. Lilly reported that mental health and business partnerships, mentoring programs, improving curriculum and adding in more training for staff were all strategies that grant-winners have proposed.

Initially, 254 districts and charter schools applied, many pointing out how Indiana’s recent opioid crisis has increased social and emotional challenges for students. Counselors have to juggle those serious needs with college and career advising and, increasingly, responsibilities that have nothing to do with counseling, such as overseeing standardized tests.

Because of the level of interest, Lilly is planning a second round of grants, which would total up to $10 million.

“Because the implementation grant process was so competitive, the Endowment had to decline several proposals that had many promising features,” Cobb said. “We believe that with a few enhancements, many of these proposals will be very competitive in the second round of the Counseling Initiative.”

These are the districts and schools in Marion County that received counseling grants. (Find the full list here.)

  • Indianapolis Public Schools: $2,871,400
  • KIPP Indianapolis: $100,000
  • Lawrence Township: $1,527,400
  • Pike Township: $1,114,700
  • Neighborhood Charter Network: $68,312
  • Southeast Neighborhood School of Excellence: $99,870

IPS said in a news release that it planned to use the grant money to build counseling centers in each of the district’s high schools, which would begin operating in 2018 after IPS transitions to four high schools. Superintendent Lewis Ferebee said counselors are “critical” for students as they prepare to graduate high school and pursue higher education and careers.

“We’re thrilled that the students and families we serve will benefit from this gift,” Ferebee said.