A Safe and Positive Place on the Reservation

Juliana K. moved to the small town of Thoreau, New Mexico, to teach Math in a rural school bordering the Navajo Nation.

Very quickly her eyes were opened to the harsh reality of reservation life. The Problem 15 teenagers - gone. 15 teenagers lost their lives. This wasn’t because of war. It wasn’t because of car accidents or physical sickness. It wasn’t because of natural causes.   15 teenagers in my community committed suicide and there were over 90 recorded ideation’s, attempts and completions. That’s more than one per week.

Can you believe that in a nation where immigrants literally risk their lives for a chance at the “American Dream” others can be in such a state of hopelessness? Within the 30 mile radius that Thoreau Middle School serves, there are no supermarkets - which means no access to fresh food or produce. There are no libraries - which means no consistent place for youth to do homework or for adults to research jobs.  Out here, there are very few quality youth programs, summer camps, and opportunities that young people in other areas take for granted.

On the first day I drove into town, gang symbols, graffiti and trash greeted me. More than 60% of the adult population lacks a high school diploma or its equivalent. 33% (one out of every 3 families) lives below the poverty line. With these figures, you can see how depressing and hopeless life may seem out here, but let me show you another side of this community. You need to see the tradition, strength, and beauty that peeks out from behind this poverty-ridden setting. You need to know the beauty and potential that exists in this community, and that we cannot give up on.

The school basketball teams have incredible spirit, and the community fills the gym to support these rising athletes. Also, several of my former students were champions in barrel racing and other rodeo sports. They definitely know more than I could ever learn about training horses and herding sheep. Their tradition runs deep. I can still hear the laughter of my students echoing in our classroom as they taught me how to say “Hello, my friend” in Navajo and then joked around about their grandma’s mutton stew and fry bread. This joy and beauty is the true Thoreau.

The problem we face is that the effects of poverty and historical oppression are covering up the “true” Thoreau and leading youth to a state of hopelessness, where they see suicide as the way out of their problems.

Plan of Action

I began talking with parents, fellow teachers, community members, and government officials about creating an enduring, sustainable center for youth. I called the County Manager to ask about an abandoned building, and shortly after, we had our first supporter. The idea of a Community Center was born, because it became apparent that there is no “one cause” to suicide and there is no “one answer” to solving it. This challenge needed to be addressed by the whole community, and we needed to take a holistic approach to healing and preventing a future crisis.

I went to my first Chapter House meeting, the local governing body of the Navajo Nation and after 4 hours of not understanding what was being said (they are conducted mostly in Navajo!), it was my turn. I stepped up to the microphone with my interpreter (the receptionist from the Middle School) and presented this idea. The community liked it, and I even received applause and a standing ovation from the audience! That was when I knew that this was going to happen. It was the start to everything. After that, I drove with my interpreter to local businesses, organizations, and churches to explain my idea and involve community members in the planning process and recruit locals to serve on our Board of Directors.

In the meantime, I moved out of my apartment, and into the Community Center building that McKinley County had so graciously rented to us for $1/year for our services to the community. I decided to stay in the building so I could put more money towards the community center, and at the same time send a signal to a community that I was just starting to gain the trust of. I was here, and I was going to do everything in my power to make the Thoreau Community Center a reality.

So we had a building! Next step…funding and continued support from the community! McKinley County continued to support us. In the early months, we used this money to complete building repairs, and had over 40 people come out to our first public event- a “Volunteer Day”.  It was incredible to see the community come together for this cause! We built a trail, painted the building, planned to paint signs, picked up trash, removed unsafe left-over playground equipment, and built enduring relationships. With the building repairs completed, we moved on to our Grand Opening.

For this event, we partnered with the Chapter House to provide a pre-Thanksgiving meal for the community and celebrate the beginning of the Thoreau Community Center. Over 170 people turned out for this event. We began some base programs that wouldn’t require substantial effort or funding, but would build up our reputation in the community while we built capacity. We began hosting Family Movie Nights and opened up our space for a local Alcoholics Anonymous group, as well as a “Winter Carnival” sponsored by a youth-activism group at the Thoreau High School.

We’ve used our funding to hire staff members from the community who help facilitate programs and have partnered with 3 regional youth serving organizations to provide a dynamic after school program for the teenagers here. Several teachers and community members have volunteered to be tutors, and we have also been able to partner with the public schools so that students who live in even more remote areas than Thoreau can have access to the resources we’re providing.

After completing homework, youth participate in a range of activities from arts and crafts, to athletics, to team-building and leadership training. We also have been able to establish a community garden, lending library and Internet lab for the community to use during school hours. So far, our efforts combined with those of the community have effectively stopped the youth suicide.

Last year, in 2011, we were able to intervene with 3 teenage girls who were seriously considering taking their lives. While we are grateful that there have been zero youth suicides since we opened our doors, this is not enough. Our ultimate goal is not to see our community just “surviving”, but “thriving”!  We will continue pushing towards our mission “to inspire hope, joy, and progress” until the poverty fades, and the true Thoreau shines brilliantly clear. 

Juliana K., Thoreau, New Mexico, United States