Reservation Youth Leaders Brainstorm Solutions

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Students from Mission High School lean in as they non-verbally engage and take in what students from surrounding school share. (Lailani Upham photo)
Students from Mission High School lean in as they non-verbally engage and take in what students from surrounding school share. (Lailani Upham photo)

PABLO — Being a teenager is tough enough. Add problems in the community – such as suicides and drug and alcohol abuse – and the need to find solutions becomes more important that ever. While the adults work on the solution, what can Reservation teens do?

Arlee Senior Laurencia Starblanket believes greatest need is combating suicide, drugs, and alcohol. She said youth linking together, passing on a message of support and actually doing something and not merely talk about it is vital. “Every thing we say we must accomplish,” said Starblanket.

Starblanket is one of many students from five schools on the Flathead Reservation who gathered at Salish Kootenai College last Thursday to brainstorm solutions to adversities critical to Reservation youth.

“Students came together and developed their own solution and began a process for the next steps in a movement through their own thoughts and voice,” said Donald Wetzel Jr., Office of Public Instruction, Native Youth Outreach Coordinator.

Nearly 75 students from Arlee, St. Ignatius, Ronan, Two Eagle River School and Polson tossed back and forth across the room names they felt would identify their group — and the winner was Flathead Youth Initiative (FYI).

Student peers listen in as Arlee student Laurencia Starblanket shares views of change for the community youth. (Lailani Upham photo)
Student peers listen in as Arlee student Laurencia Starblanket shares views of change for the community youth. (Lailani Upham photo)

Like the adult professionals in the area, youth know first-hand the troubles that permeate throughout the Reservation.

Peter Ryan Matt, a senior at St. Ignatius and leader in the Mission Bulldog Initiative, said, “Everyone is hurting.”

“When it rains it pours,” he said. “Last week was a tough week. Counselors came into the classrooms to talk to us about suicide preventions and numbers to call.” With all the grief lingering within the school walls Matt said the students came up with an idea last week to take off seventh period and have uplifting activities to “bring up the mood.”

Matt said he was excited when he heard about the Reservation schools gathering together and the drive it created to make things happen. “I hope it continues in the years ahead.”

Donald Wetzel Jr., Office of Public Instruction, Native Youth Outreach Coordinator, guides ideas as students speak out at the first Flathead Youth Initiative meeting last Thursday at Salish Kootenai Collge. (Lailani Upham photo)
Donald Wetzel Jr., Office of Public Instruction, Native Youth Outreach Coordinator, guides ideas as students speak out at the first Flathead Youth Initiative meeting last Thursday at Salish Kootenai Collge. (Lailani Upham photo)

Macy Waugh, a junior at Two Eagle River School, said she felt the current necessity for students is “a change of mindset.”

“Someone’s mindset determines their life,” said Waugh. “Being raised on the Rez is hard. We don’t have what other people have and you begin to feel you are less than and your mindset is low.” She said the outcome of this kind of mindset can plunge one into defeat in many areas of life. “They think their future is going to be crap.”

“Youth need to know so much more and the younger kids need to be taught the right mindset,” she said. “We need hope and the students here (at the meeting) have pretty good mindsets.”

Waugh said with this motion created at the gathering, students can help other students set their minds to aim for a brighter future.

Ronan Sophomore Persephone Sandoval, a member of a leadership group at her school called Generation Indigenous or Gen-I, said youth linking with elders and leaders in the community is key. “Elders can teach younger leaders to become their own voice and become leaders for their peers,” said Sandoval.

Students from five schools on the Flathead Reservation gathered at Salish Kootenai College last Thursday to brainstorm answers to adversities critical to Reservation youth. (Lailani Upham photo)
Students from five schools on the Flathead Reservation gathered at Salish Kootenai College last Thursday to brainstorm answers to adversities critical to Reservation youth. (Lailani Upham photo)

TERS school official Georgie Mitchell said she was inspired by the gathering of students and witnessed the empowerment of the gathering through a unified message of, “I do count, I do matter, and I do have a voice.”

“We all need groups like this, even non-tribal members — bring them. We all need each other,” said Willie Stevens, CSKT member and youth outreach volunteer.

The five Reservation schools that make up the FYI group is a great movement for change said Wetzel. “FYI gives them something to connect to. These strong kids came together at the right timing,” Wetzel said. “Letting their voice and thoughts talk,” said Wetzel.

Last month in Helena during the Native Youth Leadership meeting backed by Montana School of Promise initiative, students from around the state of Montana gathered to come up with solutions in their schools. Many of the solutions surrounded suicide prevention.

The gathering in Helena brought together urban and Reservation Native youth. “No matter who you are or where you come from you get kids to gather; they connect,” said Wetzel.

Peter “Beedo” Ryan Matt, a Senior at St. Ignatius and leader in the Mission Bulldog Initiative, shares actions Mission High School students are currently doing to connect students in their school. (Lailani Upham photo)
Peter “Beedo” Ryan Matt, a Senior at St. Ignatius and leader in the Mission Bulldog Initiative, shares actions Mission High School students are currently doing to connect students in their school. (Lailani Upham photo)

During the April Helena gathering, under the Indian Education initiative, students from the Blackfeet Reservation talked about ideas and solutions they were developing their schools on the Reservation. Community leaders witnessed the success of student involvement and motivation and wanted the idea to spread across the all Montana Reservations. The first stop was Flathead. “We got it going Indian style, let’s just do it!” Wetzel said.

According to Montana Office of Public Instruction, the Montana School of Promise is a school improvement grants initiative formed as a partnership between schools, communities and the Office of Public Instruction to improve the state’s most struggling schools. In communities across Montana hope is shared for their children to graduate and be prepared to go on to college or get a job. It was established in 2009 under the leadership of OPI Superintendent Denise Juneau to drastically improve the educational experience and outcomes for students attending SIG eligible schools.

The FYI group plans to involve all Flathead Reservation schools to connect, said Wetzel.

Flathead Youth Initiative created on May 4 is a new group of local high school students from Arlee, St. Ignatius, Ronan, Two Eagle and Polson in effort to work in partnership to build positive unity for youth on the Flathead Reservation. (Lailani Upham photo)

The other intention was to instill what leadership means, Wetzel said. However, the definition came from the students. “They took off with it (leadership) and are leading their own community with their answers, said Wetzel.

The morning discussion surrounded activities the students would like to see happen as a positive force across the Reservation: A walk across the Reservation with stops along the way to meet with elders and engage in heart-to-heart talks; more basketball and golf tournaments; community honoring graduates; mentorship of older students to younger; and more.

“Students from each school shared with each other what they are doing in their schools so other students could pick up ideas for their own schools,” said Wetzel.

Jodi Hunter, CSKT Tribal Education Career and College Readiness Coach, said she feels the assembly was a stepping-stone for students to develop their identity as leaders. “This is necessary and has been so needed for the community for awhile,” she said.

The next Montana School of Promise FYI meeting will be held on Tuesday, May 16 from 9 a.m. to noon at the SKC Joe McDonald Camas room. Any students interested in getting involved should contact their school counselors or Indian club leaders.


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