Friday, June 27, 2008

By Nicole Duciaume, Documentation and Sponsorship Support Officer for Christian Children's Fund

Today, we were honored to attend the opening of a youth suicide prevention Safe House on the Rosebud Indian Reservation. Once a large storage facility owned by the Sinte Gleska University, this rehabilitated house now offers a meeting room, a recreation hall, a counseling center, two bedrooms, a fully functioning kitchen and bathrooms.

The university sold the building to CCF’s partner organization for $1. The land upon which it sits was loaned by the Catholic Church. University students who are finishing their counseling degrees and need practicum hours will be on-call 24 hours a day for children and youth who come to the center. A professional counselor from Catholic Social Services is volunteering her time to oversee all counseling sessions. This building and the people dedicated to its completion and successful continuation literally represent the various factions of the community coming together to make change possible. It’s a place that defines a dream – one that many had and many were willing to make a reality.

Six groups of five youth worked to make the house hospitable. Today the peach colored siding welcomes guests into clean, bright and cheery rooms with fresh paint, new floors, updated plumbing and rewired electricity. It represents a major change from the days when mice and spiders ruled the nest and when boxes were stacked tall to the ceilings and miscellaneous items were strewn about.

New board games are piled on a table near the big screen television. Internet is ready for the computers that will be unpacked from their boxes. The kitchen cabinets are painted a sky blue and silver knobs add an accent. A new refrigerator and stove gleam brightly. Stacked in the corners are boxes of teen-appropriate kitchen gadgets like pizza cookers and shaved ice makers. The rooms burst with both kinetic and potential teen energy.

Just before the open house, we busied ourselves decorating with balloons, adding finishing touches to the rooms, filling the coolers with sodas, grilling lunch for the guests and chatting with several of the local staff and volunteers:

Travis Eagle Deer, the director of CCF’s local partner organization Oyate Networking, spoke of the need for the center. Citing an overwhelming number of teen suicides, he explained that often there is a stigma associated with depression. Also, because of a lack of places to go, youth will stay out late and find mischief. He explained that the safe house will provide a place for youth to come for a few hours if their home environment is volatile. This occurs often because of the high rates of alcoholism in the community. The safe house isn’t only for youth, though. The meeting room will be a “space for all of the community to use for outreach” and offer discussions on different programming topics every week for parents and children.

Pauline Bear Shield, an Oyate Networking staff member sewed all of the curtains for the center and Mary Whipple, who is the site coordinator was up until 3 a.m. preparing food for the open house guests. Her son Shawn, 13, also helped improve the space. At one point he had so much paint in his hair, it looked striped. In addition to supervising the youth, Mary will provide snacks. If her fried bread is any indication of what they will snack on, the youth will not go hungry and will look forward to the snacks.

Adrian, 19, and Dylan, 15, were proud as peacocks during the open house. For the two young men, transforming the building into a safe house was a labor of love. They never complained about all the jobs they had to do – they simply did them. The two, along with many others, painted, tiled, put together grills and even learned how to do some minor electrical work. In the end, it was worth it. “We’re proud of what we did,” Adrian said. “It kept us out of trouble. And it’s really going to be a place for the younger ones to chill.” Dylan added, with a grin, “Travis said we did a pretty good job.”

The Safe House represents a place where children, youth, parents, and community members can come to support each other and redefine their commitment to the well being of the children and youth of the Rosebud Indian Reservation.

It was an honor to be part of the open house.

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Thursday, June 26, 2008

By Nicole Duciaume, Documentation and Sponsorship Support Officer for Christian Children's Fund

In the midst of traversing the state of South Dakota, we had the opportunity visit several national landmarks such as Mount Rushmore, Crazy Horse and Wounded Knee. These opportunities bring history alive. I often reverted into an inquisitive school girl at seeing monuments in actuality rather than as a faded memory from elementary school history class. One cannot help but sit in awe of what these places mean, especially to the people who have dedicated their lives to telling the story of the great persons represented and memorialized.

A highlight today was meeting with a wonderful couple who lives in South Dakota and sponsors two children in our local programs. As they explained, charity begins at home. Don and Lauren Balyeat have been CCF sponsors for several years. However, they have taken the challenge of supporting programs well beyond their monthly contributions. Understanding that many enrolled children do not yet have sponsors, they have taken it upon themselves to bring a little extra joy to many enrolled children as well as their own sponsored ones. For the second year in a row, the Balyeats have funded monthly summer trips for groups of children from 2 of our partner communities (one in Kyle and one in Rapid City). Trips range from water parks to animal sanctuaries and even to the Devils Tower in Wyoming.

When we met up with the Balyeats for lunch, Lauren was on her lunch break and Don had just left Spirit of the Hills Wildlife Sanctuary, a community-funded animal sanctuary that houses lions, tigers, pigs, donkeys, and chickens, among several other species. Don was there welcoming a group of about 20 CCF kids who would spend the day learning about different animals, the importance of compassion for animals, and even more subtle messages such as teamwork, community support, friendship and living peacefully even in difficult times.

For example, Don told the story of an orphaned tiger cub named Stinky who was raised by a hound dog named Butter. As they grew older, Stinky outgrew the space and had to be moved to another section of the sanctuary. The first night apart, both Stinky and Butter wailed and cried until it was determined that they had to be reunited the following day. The children were amazed at even seeing a tiger, let alone the fact that the tiger’s “mom” was a dog and how they relied on each other for support. These types of learning experiences are rare for the children enrolled in our programs – and they are the kinds of moments the children will remember for a lifetime.

Leaving the Balyeats just outside of Rapid City, we headed south toward Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Whereas the landscape to Cheyenne River Indian Reservation had been rolling palatial green plains, the route to Pine Ridge took us through the arid and seemingly desolate Badlands, which Frank Lloyd Wright once described as giving him “an indescribable sense of mysterious...”

Formed by 500,000 years of erosion, the Badlands dip and peak in terra cotta colors, painting a sunset across their vastness. With prairie dogs playing hide and seek in the shadows of the eagle-circled peaks, the drive was wondrous as we learned of the historical and spiritual significance of this National Park. The land, named mako sica (mako, land and sica, bad) by the Lakota, is as beautiful as it is intimidating.

We arrived at our hotel for the evening ready to rest, reflect and renew for the next day.

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Wednesday, June 25, 2008

By Nicole Duciaume, Documentation and Sponsorship Support Officer for Christian Children's Fund

Initial summer programs will begin the third week of July and will aim to improve educational, social, cultural and youth leadership skills while also identifying community assets and needs. Programs will combine constructive educational, recreational , cultural and social activities for children and youth (grades k-12) in the afternoon as well as a movie/game night for the entire community. Weekly themes will focus on different Olympic values that also relate to the cardinal Lakota virtues such as woksape (wisdom), woohitika (bravery), wowacintanka (fortitude) and wacantognaka (generosity). Children who complete the summer program will receive a backpack and school supplies to prepare them for the next year.

An important part of the summer program will also be completing a full assessment of the community needs and children/youth priorities. CCF will establish both a community/parent and a separate child/youth advisory council to determine programming priorities as well as a community map indicating both risks (dangerous areas for children such as bars, poorly lit areas, dangerous streets and mean dogs) as well as resources (areas that add a positive value to children such as libraries, cultural memorials, safe houses, activity centers, caring adults and play areas).

These participatory assessments empower the children and families to determine the root causes of poverty, potential solutions, roles that CCF will play, partnerships that need to be strengthened and ultimate goals for sustainability.

As CCF moves forward with partnering with other organizations as well as the Cheyenne River Tribal Council, we have one important ally: Tribal Chairman Joe Brings Plenty. He is the perfect example of how diligence, hard work and a positive attitude can foster leadership and a brighter future. Chairman Joe is a former CCF sponsored child.

He showed us a slightly worn photo of himself as a youth. The photo is of a small choir that visited local prisons. Chairman Joe is wearing a red sweater. For the choir performance he had to wear something nice and the red sweater was the only nice thing he had in his closet. It was the only Christmas present he received that year and was from his CCF sponsor.

Beyond the tangible gift of the sweater, Chairman Joe said that he was touched by what it represented to him as a child growing up on a reservation. He said the sweater represented that people cared about Indian issues and shared the same values such as compassion and generosity. Having a sponsor gave him hope to be a good person with a bright future. “It showed me the possibilities,” he recalled. Embracing his own experiences from the past, he is a strong advocate for CCF coming to Cheyenne River. “I want the youth today to have the experiences that I had,” he said during a break in a tribal council meeting.

Forging strong partnerships will help CCF’s programs be successful and sustainable.

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Tuesday, June 24, 2008

By Nicole Duciaume, Documentation and Sponsorship Support Officer for Christian Children's Fund

Early Tuesday morning, we left Rapid City as the already sparse buildings grew farther and farther apart. The patches of green expanded in seemingly limitless directions. Rust colored earth pushed through between the grazing cattle, and the hills undulated in rhythm with the radio station coming in and out of range. My cell phone reception bars decreased as the horizon increased. We traveled west and then north and then west again on roads that are both paved and dirt. Our car took a beating. After almost 3 hours in the car we began to see signs for Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.

The whole of the Reservation is about the size of Connecticut. But instead of the densely populated eastern seaboard, we are in the central Midwest where the wind sweeps across the plains.

We entered one of the communities where CCF will be working. The community had only just survived a flooding, and sandbags were still in evidence. The facility we visited was in need of new supplies. There were only a few chairs, the windows had no curtains and the staunch white walls were mostly bare. The foosball table was used for storage and some books were missing pages. Though there was a small bookshelf with various board games, most were purchased at garage sales and had various pieces missing. The symbolism was pretty clear: a nearly complete puzzle just missing one or two pieces representing the resources, skills, programs and support CCF can add. CCF is not the only piece of the puzzle, but we do have the opportunity to see what is missing and partner with existing community organizations, families and the tribal council to help complete the bigger picture.

We had the opportunity to meet with Nicole Eagle Chasing, the newly hired home visitor who has been busy enrolling children for CCF’s upcoming summer program. She explained some of the needs that she notices as she goes home-to-home visiting with the families. She described how many of the government built homes are beginning to show signs of age, such as tile floors worn down to the cork boards below. Many of the families lack beds for the children and drapes for the windows. Cleaning supplies and toiletries are in demand as a result of the recent floods.

Nicole said that the biggest threat to children is neglect and being left alone while their parents are out of the house either at work, casinos or even the local bars. Some children might only get one meal a day. Older children are expected to take care of their younger siblings, and though this often leads to greater camaraderie among the children, it also forces some to drop out of school to care for their younger siblings. Children often don’t know what opportunities exist for them and are not able to fully embrace their cultural heritage.

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Monday, June 23, 2008

By Nicole Duciaume, Documentation and Sponsorship Support Officer for Christian Children's Fund

CCF proudly works in many communities throughout the United States, including several in the great state of South Dakota. In the coming weeks CCF will launch a new program on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation. In preparation for the launch, I traveled to South Dakota to learn about the programmatic goals, meet the staff and provide some feedback on sponsorship and program integration. It is an exciting time for CCF as we reach out to new families and continue our global movement to improve the lives of children.

Accompanying me on the trip was Cynthia Price, CCF’s new director of communications. We met at the airport early Monday morning and slowly made our way across country meandering through terminals and navigating among the hoards of summer travelers. In between messages from the pilots, we took the opportunity to finish our pre-trip readings.

I flipped through the dossier of information: Cheyenne River Indian Reservation encompasses two of the poorest counties in all of the United States. The area is scarcely populated with great distances between homes. In the winter months transportation is nearly impossible for days at a time. It is the land of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe. More specifically, these families are members of the Lakota Tribe, the same as Sitting Bull and Crazy Horse. Despite their rich culture and history, poverty manifests itself in higher than average rates of school drop out, suicide, alcoholism, unemployment, neglect and diabetes related obesity.

As the plane descended into Rapid City, S.D., I closed the various files and prepared for landing. There is always a palpable excitement when the plane touches down and the anticipation for the week ahead comes to a climax - what I will learn, see, do, understand, share, explore, teach, and wonder. Immediately outside of baggage claim we were greeted by Deb Douglas, CCF’s Northern Plains area manager. Later that evening we returned to the airport to pick up another traveling companion, Julia Campbell, the program coordinator for the CCF U.S. programs.

And thus our South Dakota adventure began.

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Wednesday, June 4, 2008

Diamantina, the Jewel of the Mineiro Crown!

By Renée Ferguson, Senior Direct Mail Associate for Christian Children’s Fund

At 8:00 a.m. we started the more than five-hour ride to Diamantina. The colonial village lies in a chain of mountains in central Minas Gerais at 4,140 feet above sea level and still functions as a diamond-mining town.

Our tour guide, Helena, shared a little about the area’s history and what to expect during our visit. Some of us chewed gum to counteract the slight pressure in our ears as we continued the winding climb farther and farther upward. Many times, the dramatic mountainous views outside of our windows entranced us.

Arriving after 1:00, we enjoyed lunch at Grupiara Restaurant while the helpful staff delivered our bags to the hotel and checked us in. This gave us a couple of hours to tour the quaint town. Diamantina, formerly called Tijuco, was built during the early 18th century and was the hub of Brazilian diamond mining in the 18th and 19th centuries.

The cobblestone streets were lined with lovely, traditional shops, offices and churches. The colorful Baroque architecture was absolutely breathtaking. The people were gracious and friendly.

Around 5:30 we gathered for our ride to Felicio dos Santos community to visit our first program area. Our 2008 Brazil Study Tour was the first ever to visit a remote, rural program.

We boarded two vans, as the rough terrain wouldn’t accommodate a large tour bus. We shortly learned why.

The first half or so of the journey traversed steep, winding paved roads ― but the rest of the trip took us through rugged, heavily pitted dirt roads. We bumped, bounced and swayed so much that some us really got to know the others. My head met my side window a couple of times. Fortunately there were only a few instances of mild motion sickness.

We now had firsthand knowledge of some of the day-to-day challenges faced by children and families living in remote areas.

Around 7:00, we finally arrived at Felicio dos Santos, no worse for wear, and stepped off the bus to the sounds of a band, children singing, and people cheering. Lights flashed in the darkness as tourists and media alike snapped photos.

We felt like celebrities. And to top it all off, the band and children led us in a parade through the village to the Cultural Center. We were joined by a throng of townspeople. Others waved from their porches as we walked by. Some people had traveled many hours from neighboring towns to be in on the festivities, which also coincided with their June Festivals (Festas Juninas or Sao Joao).

The small community center now burst at the seams with guests. The children entertained us with music and dance. And the community leaders shared the wonderful work that CCF Belo is able to accomplish because of faithful sponsors and donors.
Everyone ventured outside for a community meal followed by forro dancing ― country style!

After several precious hours, we expressed our gratitude and headed back over the bumpy roads to spend the night in the Tijuco Hotel in Diamantina.

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Tuesday, June 3, 2008

From the Coasts to the Mountains of Gold

By Renée Ferguson, Senior Direct Mail Associate for Christian Children’s Fund

We had a much-needed morning of leisure before we boarded the bus at 12:45 to go to the airport. Our 3:10 flight took us to Belo Horizonte, the capital and largest city of the state of Minas Gerais.

Minas Gerais, unlike the warm, coastal states of Ceará and Bahia, is very mountainous and completely bordered by land. Located in the Southeast region of Brazil, Minas Gerais is the second most populous state and the fourth largest by area ― a little larger than France.

We flew for about an hour and a half and arrived at Belo’s international airport to a wonderful surprise ― a heartwarming welcome serenade by CCF children and CCF Belo staff accompanied by accordion, guitar and drums.

As we all gathered to listen, the group broke into the forró dance we had first experienced in Fortaleza. They stirred us from the lethargy of our flight as they grabbed our hands, inviting us to join them in the lively dance circle.

I would have loved to see the faces of the bystanders, but I was too busy laughing and whirling around.

After the dance and greetings, we dragged our luggage toward the waiting bus. Some of us attempted to withdraw some money in Brazilian reals from the ATMs before traveling toward the hotel well north of the city. The bus ride took longer than the flight ― about two hours.

The Taua hotel was nestled in the mountains in beautiful lush wilderness, its imposing height replicating the mountains. We ate dinner there and rested for the night. In the morning we would leave very early for a long rural drive and an overnight stay in the colonial mining town of Diamantina.

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Monday, June 2, 2008

Salvador, Bahia―A City Immersed in Colorful Folkloric Heritage

By Renée Ferguson, Senior Direct Mail Associate for Christian Children’s Fund

I awoke at the break of dawn and stepped out onto my balcony to catch the magnificent Bahian sunrise. The invigorating morning breeze washed over me as I listened to the waves, considering the picturesque vista.

The sunshine welcomed us to this celebrated city ― the second stop of our trip. And we enjoyed one of the tour’s few unhurried mornings.

Later we met for the bus tour of Bahia’s capital, Salvador da Bahia― Brazil’s fourth largest city.

Salvador, the heart of the country’s African/Brazilian culture, is divided into the Cidade Alta (Upper city) and the Cidade Baixa (Lower City).

The Upper City is located on a high steep cliff that drops sharply some 230 feet to the Lower City. The Lower City occupies the land along the rock-strewn harbor with its naval base, docks and warehouses. And it is the commercial and financial center of Salvador.

We stopped in the Lower City to see the Forte de Santo Antônio da Barra, Brazil’s oldest fort and lighthouse. Some young men were in front of the fort, which also houses the Maritime Museum, practicing capoeira, a Bahian form of martial arts and dance. I snapped a photograph and was very quickly approached and asked to pay several reals, Brazil’s currency, for the privilege.

We finished the bus tour as we approached the more colonial Upper City and because of its steep terrain and narrow streets, we finished with a walking tour. Walking through the streets of Pelourinho, (the old city), was like strolling through the history books. We could look down on the Mercado Modelo, a popular market in the Lower City.

Salvador, also called Bahia, is not only known for its culture and cuisine but also its architecture. And the stunning pastel-hued Baroque architecture of Pelo, as the natives refer to the Old City, is certainly no exception.

At a little after 3:00 this afternoon we returned to the hotel and enjoyed a few hours of free time before meeting at 7:00 for an evening out on the town. We boarded the bus to head back to Pelo for a brilliant dance, music and folklore show at 8:00. Arriving a little early, we had about 25 minutes for more shopping.

Some of us walked down to a little art boutique and applied our negotiation skills to purchase colorful paintings depicting Bahian life.

A few minutes later, we met at a small theater to enjoy the performance by Balé Folclórico da Bahia.

Afterwards, we walked across the cobblestone street to the restaurant for a late dinner. The menu offered traditional Bahian fish stew, grilled fish, grilled chicken or steak. We enjoyed the hearty meal and headed back to the hotel for the night.

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Sunday, June 1, 2008

On to Salvador, Bahia ― Brazil’s First Capital

By Renée Ferguson, Senior Direct Mail Associate for Christian Children’s Fund

This morning we enjoyed a hearty breakfast and checked out of the hotel for our trip to the airport. A few CCF Fortaleza staff and our tour guide, Gleisa, joined us for the bus ride.

Smiling, yet fighting back tears, Gleisa spoke on behalf of the children and the staff. Her voice broke as she shared her deep and abiding gratitude for the compassion that sponsors of children in Brazil regularly demonstrate through their donations.

She reminded the sponsors that their generosity and kindness amount to much more than a mere “drop in the bucket.” Our 17 drops combine exponentially with the efforts of hundreds of thousands of sponsors and donors who make a difference in the lives of the children in all parts of the world where CCF works.

She talked about the great impact our visit had made, demonstrating to the children that their sponsors cared enough about their well-being to travel all the way to Brazil just to see them.

The rest of the bus ride was quiet as members of the group gazed through their tears at the scenery outside the window ... silently saying goodbye to beautiful Fortaleza.

The relatively uneventful afternoon flight provided a welcome, restful couple of hours ― until we unexpectedly had to change planes during a stop in Recife, walking from the tarmac to the building during a rain shower!

We boarded the new plane to continue on to Salvador International Airport, arriving around 4:00. We gathered our luggage and headed to the Pestana Bahia Hotel. The hotel’s ocean view was breathtaking -- its rough surf pounding the rocky shores. The view from my window appeared as though I was looking out of the window of a mighty cruise ship.

After a couple of hours relaxing we met in the hotel restaurant where we enjoyed dinner outdoors under a large covered dining area. The sounds of the ocean lulled us into a relaxed mood while we tasted a variety of dishes from the aromatic and colorful buffet of Bahian cuisine.

Highly prized by the rest of Brazil, the state of Bahia’s distinctive, soulful cuisine is influenced by a virtual melting pot of African, Indian and Portuguese traditions. Seafood, coconut oil, malagueta chili peppers, and dendê, a bright orange palm oil, are the main ingredients found in many Bahian dishes. The dinner tonight was a delicious introduction to this tantalizing gastronomy.

The evening ended with a walk around the corner to a pharmacy for bottled water. On the way back we relished the fresh ocean breeze and the sounds of the surf before parting for the night.

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