Victoria (center) poses with students in the American Indian Youth Enrichment program.

By Thekla Rura-Polley, Associate Director of Development

When Victoria was an elementary student, she was glad to attend American Indian Youth Enrichment (AIYE). She says, “It’s hard to walk in two worlds. American Indian Youth Enrichment helped me navigate the two worlds.” She has many fond memories of her time in the program, from being accepted as an American Indian and affirmed in her culture to learning to take pride in herself. Unfortunately, the program is offered only in elementary school. Without the program’s support in middle and high school, she fell on hard times. She tried alcohol and drugs and was not sure where her life was going. Through a fortunate event, she reconnected with AIYE and turned her life around. In fact, she credits AIYE with saving her life and giving it new meaning and purpose.

AIYE had organized a field trip and Victoria volunteered to join the trip to accompany her nephew. She was at the lowest point in her life. Yet, all around her laughing, smiling children were excited to be on this field trip, excited to experience something different and excited to learn something new. Her nephew was so happy. Seeing this happiness sparked Victoria to remember how happy she had been in AIYE. She remembered the affirmation and pride she felt in the program. She remembered the cultural rootedness. She remembered learning that “nothing is impossible; you can achieve anything that you put your mind to.” She decided to change. She got sober. She graduated from high school and went on to college. For the last 12 years, she has been a volunteer and classroom teacher in AIYE. This year, her daughter is graduating from AIYE. Soon her son will enroll in the program.

Victoria (left) assists students during the Native Foods and Cooking class.

Victoria sees the challenges faced by the American Indian community. She says that the program works because “it is the community, it is how we all come together for the kids. It’s really awesome how we are now in the second generation of the program. We were together in the program and became friends; and now we are sending our children to AIYE.”

As a classroom teacher and parent, she loves giving children access to a wider variety of experiences such as museums, historic sites, and nature. She knows that many AIYE families face transportation and other barriers and are not able to participate in opportunities that some other children have. Providing field trips and cultural experiences is an integral part of the program. Victoria adds, “They are only kids once; why not enjoy it while they can.”

Other families also find AIYE to be a positive experience for their kids. One mother mentioned that her kids attend Dayton’s Bluff Elementary School because it is in walking distance from her house, thereby eliminating transportation challenges. She is glad that AIYE offers a summer program and enrolls her kids every year. She loves the tight community and the positive impact on the families. It is very important to her that the program is culturally based, and that the kids experience and learn their culture, language, and history.

New this year is a leadership program for 6th graders. They form their own group and receive special attention during their transition to middle school. They lead the smudging ritual, act as role models for the younger participants, and help plan special events. Leading parts of the program and guiding the younger students reinforces the cultural learning, strengthens their pride in themselves, and builds their confidence.

Victoria sees AIYE as part of the solution to the problems faced by the American Indian community. AIYE allows the students, teachers, volunteers, and families to be who they are. With its culturally based teachings, it fills the spiritual hole that many who live in urban areas experience. By building friendships from generation to generation, it strengthens the ties in the community. “Some families move and then I miss the kids. But I still see them at Powwows and other events and the connection is still there.” She knows that AIYE teaches the kids to make smart choices, take pride in who they are, and be confident that they can achieve anything they set their mind to. It worked for her.

To learn more about the American Indian Youth Enrichment program, please contact:

Rebecca Fairbanks Dickinson
American Indian Youth Enrichment Coordinator, Department of Indian Work