In July 2008, with suicide, homelessness, domestic violence, teen pregnancy, dropout rates and gang activity at alarming rates on the Rosebud Reservation, ChildFund International, the local university Sinte Gleska and community partner Oyate Networking opened the St. Francis Youth Center.
St. Francis is used as a “Safe House” for children and youth of all ages who feel the need to be in a protected and caring environment. The “Safe House” is a place where youth can do homework, visit with friends or just sit and relax.
But for teens on the reservation, their aspirations and goals for the community extend well beyond the four walls of the center.
Roughly 30 youth between the ages of 12 and 17 have joined together to create the Sicangu Oyate Teca Youth Council. They then presented a PowerPoint presentation on what they would like to see added to the building and to the programs, said Deb Douglas, Northern Plains area manager for ChildFund.
The youth would like to see an updated library, new computer and video software, playground and sports equipment and materials to make traditional clothing, costumes and headdress. Their biggest wish was for programs focused on cultural restoration and leadership, youth-led constructive activities and suicide prevention.
“Most importantly, the youth want to empower themselves within their families,” Douglas says. “They want to remember the traditional Lakota virtues like that of generosity, wisdom and courage — and teach them as positive way of life.”.
“For example, in a restoration class the activity might be drumming, which involves unity among multiple people,” she says. “The lesson that these youth will take away from the class and teach to others is what it means to be a unified family — a unified community.”
ChildFund staff will guide youth on how to create project plans and budgets, seek external funding, publicize activities and monitor and evaluate the success of their projects.
“We want to make sure that the Lakota youth have ownership over their projects,” says Douglas. “They will be involved in the planning and implementation of everything.”
These youth-led activities provide an alternative to high-risk behaviors and promote healthy habits, cultural and self-expression, educational enhancement, physical fitness and service to the community.
Suicide is the second leading cause of death among American Indians ages 15 to 34. That rate is twice the national average.
Applied Suicide Intervention Skills Training (ASIST) will help adolescents on the Rosebud Reservation to become comfortable, confident and competent in helping prevent the immediate risk of suicide among family members, neighbors and peers.
In addition to Rosebud youth, ChildFund will select 30 youth and other community members from each of the other three South Dakota Native American communities (Cheyenne River Reservation, PineRidge Reservation and Rapid City) to participate in ASIST trainings.
At the same time, the Sicangu Oyate Teca Youth Council will work to restore Lakota cultural values and behaviors that reinforce a community environment that protects and celebrates its children.
During the program’s first year, ChildFund will engage 750 children and youth in youth-led constructive activities and 80 youth in restoration leadership classes.
“Youth want to make sure that their community doesn’t forget to focus on positive childhood milestones such as birthdays and graduations and other accomplishments,” says Douglas.
“They want a community that encourages, supports and acknowledges those children and youth who are involved in constructive, life-affirming endeavors.”