Experiential Learning

Cal Farley’s strives in everything we do to provide nurturing and healing to the hurting children we serve. The time they spend in a campus environment that emphasizes faith in God, participating in their community and superior education equips our young people with the emotional tools and real-world training to become eager learners and productive workers long after they’ve left our campus.

Among the ways young people living at Cal Farley’s learn the skills they’ll need to obtain and maintain a successful career is the Experiential Learning Program, or E.L.P. Through E.L.P., our youth are exposed to a broad range of vocational fields, from traditional trades like woodworking or horticulture, to the latest high-tech fields such as robotics and rocketry. In E.L.P., Cal Farley’s youth learn invaluable skills and participate in positive mentoring relationships through intentional educational courses.

E.L.P. is designed to foster a young person’s innovation and provides a more individualized learning experience. It also raises our young people’s awareness of the near-limitless number of careers available to them after they leave Cal Farley’s.

Youth participating in the program learn in small teams, working together toward common project goals. This process creates an atmosphere of camaraderie between youth and staff, which reinforces the work being done with our youth in other areas of their life at Boys Ranch.

Beyond learning skills and building relationships, though, youth in E.L.P. receive certifications that reflect their achievements in their chosen area of study. These industry certifications prove valuable both as a tangible symbol of their accomplishment, and make our young people more desirable to post-secondary educational programs or potential employers after they leave Cal Farley’s. Young people who came to Cal Farley’s feeling worn down by life or limited by their past circumstances leave us empowered to accomplish great things!

This kind of success doesn’t happen by accident. Caring Cal Farley’s professionals have designed a very specific curriculum to provide our young people with practical vocational knowledge in an environment that reinforces the six key values embodied in Cal Farley’s Model of Leadership and Service: safety, belonging, achievement, power, purpose and adventure.

So, who participates in the Experiential Learning Program?

To be in the program, a child must be at least 14 years old (older for some programs) and be judged by his or her youth care team to be ready to handle the responsibility involved. Younger children can join Experiential Learning Clubs, which expose them to a variety of program areas. Youth who want to participate in a given area go through an interview process. This serves two key purposes: First, it allows the child’s care team to ensure he or she is prepared to take on the challenges of the program he or she has chosen. Second, the question-and-answer process allows our youth to learn professionalism and interview skills that will help them when the time comes to apply for a job in their adult lives.

More than 20 courses comprise the E.L.P., including fields like agriculture, automotive, equine, engineering, culinary and more. Each is led by dedicated staff who have the professional knowledge and skills to provide our youth with the real-world skills to succeed in a career within that field. E.L.P. inspires Cal Farley’s youth to find success within their Boys Ranch community, but also encourages their long-term success as independent young adults.

Community As Lab


Visit Our Community As Lab Website

In 2010, Cal Farley’s staff pondered how residents could extend science and arts learning outside the classroom. As they heal emotional wounds, youth also could develop hands-on skills to use in their future lives. The result was the development of the Community-as-Lab program.

“Community-as-Lab is an effort to use the whole community as a learning lab for the youth,” said Cal Farley’s Executive Vice President Mark Strother.

Essential to the program, Strother said, is understanding how the approach empowers residents by letting them make choices based on their interests. This helps engage them in their activities and shows them the power of their unique talents.

“One of the main motivators in school,” Strother said, “is when you see the application in the real world. Getting residents involved in all of these things can motivate them back in math class, science class, history and writing.”

Another way this highly accessible program benefits Cal Farley’s residents is through the positive relationships they develop as they learn from staff mentors and their peers.

“They gain a sense of belonging, relationship,” Strother said. That’s a real key factor.”


Xavier, 17 (pictured above), participates in the three-dimensional design lab, where he regularly sees his ideas come to life. A recent example is a series of computer tables Xavier and his peers designed and built from interlocking pieces of wood without using supporting hardware. Xavier said the skills he’s gained — turning a concept into a design, rendering it in 3D software and then physically creating it — are enjoyable, but they also helped him realize how the things he’s learning now lay the groundwork for his future.

“It’s fun, but … you need knowledge to actually use it,” he said.

Xavier said he recalled once — before his involvement in C.A.L. — asking his math teacher when he would ever use what he was learning in the real world. C.A.L. has given him the answer.

“I use it (in the design lab) all of the time,” he said, “so, it’s really helpful in showing you what you’re going to do in life.”

Xavier said his experiences in the C.A.L. program helped him decide what career he wants to pursue after Cal Farley’s.

“I want to be (an) engineer,” Xavier explained. “If I wanted to make a chassis, I could 3D print one or make it using wood. And, I would apply those skills that I learn … here to make my goal and vision happen.”

Self-defeating Patterns of Behavior

Have you ever noticed how ‘other people’ (not you of course) do things and say things that quite obviously makes things worse for themselves instead of better. They appear to have a genuine lack of awareness that these behaviors are counter-productive and self-defeating.

The short clip below involving a dog protecting his bone is a perfect representation of the blindness of self-defeating behavior and the self-inflicted pain it can cause. Like the dog protecting its bone, our children are protecting themselves in ways that without any understanding to others looking on appears to be counter-productive and self-harming.

In our work with youth we understand that behavior has meaning and purpose and is needs based. We view their sometimes outrageous behaviors as their best attempt to meet one of the basic needs for safety, belonging, achievement, power, purpose or adventure. With this understanding in mind, we incorporate therapeutic interventions so that the youth in our care gain insight into their self-defeating patterns of behavior and think about and incorporate healthy ways to express their emotions to get their needs met. Some of the interventions we utilize at Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch include Life Space Crisis Intervention and The Neurosequential Model of Therapeutics.

Crazy dog bites its own leg!.mp4

A Good Read – The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog

boybook-iconDr. Bruce Perry, M.D., Ph.D., Senior Fellow of the Child Trauma Academy and Maia Szalavitz, an award-winning health and science journalist are the authors of this pivotal work about trauma and the developing brain. The book is collection of stories of some of many the children and families Dr. Perry has worked with during the span of his career as a child psychiatrist and neuroscientist.

Why we love this book:

1. Each chapter is a distinct case history and is written in an engaging narrative format.
2. The stories explore many crucial concepts related to neurodevelopment including the stress response system (freeze, fight, or flight), associations and attachment.
3. With each case study, Dr. Perry breaks down complex concepts into small, understandable pieces making this book a great learning and teaching tool.

Why You Should Read This Book:

Statistics clearly illustrate if you work with children you will likely encounter more than a few that have been exposed to trauma, violence, chaos and neglect. The Boy That Was Raised as a Dog illustrates how the different types of trauma effect emotions, behavior and a child’s ability to learn, and create and maintain relationships.

Throughout the text Dr. Perry offers clear explanations regarding how adults may help troubled children by developing an understanding of the children’s histories and through the creation of relationships with them.

This short read is a great place to begin building a knowledge base about the brain and an excellent starting point for guiding your work with children and families from hard places.

The Brain and Sleep

  • When the brain is asleep the brain is not resting. (Medina)
  • Sleep is one of the most important ways we integrate memory and emotion.  Dreams occur when the sophisticated area of our brain is uninhibited enough to allow the lower areas of the brain to run wild with imagination and feelings. (Siegel)
  • Dreams are a mixture of memories in search of resolution.  They are leftover elements of the day’s events, sensory information taken in while we’re asleep, and simple random images generated by our brain during the rapid-eye-movement (REM) stages of sleep.  (Siegel)
  • Before memories can be fully integrated they must go through a process called “consolidation,” which seems to depend on the REM phase of sleep. (Siegel)
  • For people who have experienced trauma, REM sleep is often interrupted. This may be partly responsible for their memories remaining unprocessed. (Siegel)
  • These unprocessed memories may cause sensations such as flashbacks, nightmares and a sense that the trauma is ongoing rather than in the past. (Siegel)

Taken from Brain Rules by John Medina & Mindsight by Daniel Siegel

Eric Whitacre – Eric Whitacre's Virtual Choir 2.0, 'Sleep'

From An Old West Town to a Therapeutic Community:


Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch – A Work in Progress

Cal Farley’s Boys Ranch began in a courthouse in the old West town of Tascosa. Beginnings, in most things, have a significant impact on journeys. The same holds for a boys’ ranch founded among the backdrop of cattle thieves and gunslingers. Our history has carried with it many traditional beliefs which have strengthened our mission and, at other times, weakened it.   These established ideas included each staff member utilizing his/her own personal approach to childrearing, labeling children as sick or broken, and a heavy dosing of behavior modification.

Over the past 75 years, we have grown from housing a mere 9 wayward boys to a capacity of almost 300 boys and girls, aging from pre-school to seniors. During this time we have shifted our beliefs from the more traditional to transformational.

In tandem with this trend has been our progression as a trauma aware facility. Although we have been relationally focused for several years, just recently we began an intense journey of learning about how relationships and experiences impact brain development. Pioneers in the field who have guided our thinking include Dr. Karyn Purvis of Texas Christian University’s Institute of Childhood Development and Dr. Bruce Perry of the Child Trauma Academy.

Childcare is a unique business. Most other work places can take advantage of an acknowledged learning curve. However because many people who come into childcare have had some experience with children, there tends to be an underlying belief that they are equipped for the task already. Many times staff had enjoyed success in raising their own children and hope to continue along that path with other people’s children. What we now know is that our history of relationships and experiences is what impacts our brain development, particularly between the ages of 0-3 (Perry & Szalavitz, 2006). What this means is our relationships and experiences during this time have a disproportionate impact on how our brains develop. Different experiences create different brains. A child growing up in a stable environment with consistent “good enough” caregiving (K. Purvis, TBRI Training Oct. 2011) will have a very different brain than a child who does not.

Our field has been built on finding a name for a problem presented to us. It is our natural tendency to categorize things as it creates a sense of control. Diagnosing and labeling children releases some responsibility of others to help. Whether it is a DSM diagnosis or a term taken from the addictions arena, labeling a child Reactive Attachment Disorder or a victim is not helpful – either to the child or the people needing to provide care. These words tell you a child is struggling with relationships – and what heals relational insults are healthy relationships, not medications, isolation, punishment or labels.

Behavioral modification has been a driving force not only in childcare but in the workplace as well. Even though much has been written on the negative impact this framework has on motivation, creativity, and continued positive results (please see the work of Deci, Ryan, Kohn and Pink) – we persist in sticking with it. Human behavior is much more complex than we sometimes believe. Behavior modification assumes all behavior is conscious and intentional and, therefore, controllable by external forces.   Focusing on behaviors and appearances, such as using rewards and punishments to get desired results encourages the development of a false self. Institutional environments know this all too well – when the goal is short term control, what gets lost is long term, internal, authentic change.

As organizations and individuals, we must continually remind ourselves why we exist – to create lasting, intentional change with the children and families we work with so when they leave our care they are successful beyond the walls of our facility. They can be relationally rich and contribute to society in positive ways – through being good parents, good neighbors, and good friends.

With all the information available to us about brain development and how much we are impacted by our early relationships and experiences, we can no longer allow these traditional beliefs to persist. Moving towards a more thoughtful, individualized methodology calls us to approach childcare differently.

Instead of personal parenting styles, we need to be focused on professional caring. What does it mean to take on the parental role for someone else’s child? It means the children we raise will learn how to be parents themselves through their experiences with us. Holding on to this idea, we have to be clear about what type of parents we want them to become – punitive, controlling, shaming? Or do we want children to be raised by kind, nurturing, thoughtful parents who can set limits and provide love in balance? Imagine future generations being raised by the children we care for. Are we changing their trajectories or ensuring future work for ourselves?

Rather than looking at children as broken or merely a label, we need to be more concerned with what they have been through. Many of the behaviors which are termed “challenging” were successful survival responses which now, in a different context, no longer fit the situation. In trying to understand a child’s history of experiences and relationships, we can better make sense of what we are seeing and what might be reparative.

If there was an opposite thought to behavior modification, it could be the idea of therapeutic discipline. Discipline is intended to teach a skill or improve a skill. If you augment this with “therapeutic” (anything that maintains or improves wellness and the relationship) then coming up with a consequences takes on an entirely different function. Asking what a child needs to learn from an incident (such as how to ask for what you want appropriately), makes ideas for punishment such as having to scrub the floor seem ridiculous. Underlying this approach is the idea kids do well if they can (Greene, 1998), rather than if they want to. This is a significant shift in how we look at behavior and what needs to happen to address it. In therapeutic discipline, the relationship is more important than anything else – the broken rule or the punishment. Because we know it is the strength of the relationship that will allow long lasting change to occur.

Underlying some of the most challenging behaviors are feelings of separateness, inadequacy, powerlessness, shame, and fear. When our interventions increase these feelings rather than address them, we do more harm than good.   And, often, increase and/or worsen the very behaviors we are looking to extinguish. This drives a cycle of increased control and isolation which exacerbates the issues again. It is a tiring, exasperating, winless circle – no doubt one we have all been a player in at one time or another.

So how do these transformational, rather than traditional, beliefs affect the way we help children?

Not so long ago, we would have met a child’s history of loss by creating more. Removing trips, activities, joy – in an attempt to control the behavior.

When Sarah came to us, she was 14 years old. Having a tumultuous history of domestic violence, alcoholism, homelessness, chaos, and transitions Sarah had created quite a fantasy world. Her world included talking about Superman and a vacation she has once experienced which appeared to be a little better than it probably was. These were the only topics she was interested in discussion with the staff and other girls she lived with. However, with staff who were farther removed from her daily life she would tell extensive stories of abuse with unsettling details. Sarah’s way of relating was not uncommon for a child who had experienced the amount of abuse and neglect she had. Intimate relationships were seen as threatening, strangers were not. She had not done well in school for years, she seemed to not care about grades and rarely attended at all. She was several years behind her grade level.   Sarah did not participate on any clubs or organizations. She tended to keep to herself.

Sarah’s placement goals included, “improve motivation and grades in school, learn to communicate honestly, and learn personal integrity.” If we were operating off of a traditional belief system and allowed staff to parent as they did their own children, we may have decided that in order to “motivate” Sarah (externally), we needed to make her as bored and as uncomfortable as possible. We might think restricting her from activities and friends, and making all privileges contingent upon improving her grades would be what she needed. Also, the hope might be that labeling her as depressed or oppositional defiant might help find the right medication regimen to change her behaviors.

However, in looking at her history of relationships and experiences we understood (because of our work with Dr. Perry) her brain development may not be that of a typical 14 year old. We could also see how her stories and the ways she interacted with others allowed her to disconnect from her feelings and avoid intimacy.

In order to help Sarah, we took a very holistic approach – utilizing almost every department and role available to us.

Like many children who live away from home, Sarah was concerned about being forgotten and abandoned. In order to keep her connected to her mother, we arranged for her to Skype with her once a week from her Caseworker’s office. This ability to see her house, her room, and her mother every week enabled Sarah to eventually feel less concerned about being away from home. We were also concerned about her other relationships.

Because Sarah’s relationships with adults had been tenuous, we found it important to have her work with a therapist who utilized Equine Assisted Psychotherapy. In this way, a child can build a relationship with a horse. This is a safer place to start when it comes to relational healing. However, the therapist uses these interactions as models for relationships outside the therapy session.

We also decided to accept Sarah’s fantastical stories as the protective shield they were – not questioning their authenticity and not ignoring. The typical response was “that’s interesting.” In this way, we did not engage in a power struggle with Sarah about whether or not she was telling the truth. It simply became a non-issue.

Because Sarah slept during the day, she did not exercise regularly and did not sleep well at night. We enlisted a peer in the home who liked to walk every day. Sarah agreed to walk with her – which gave her not only regular physical activity but companionship. We also helped Sarah structure her nightly routine so that it encouraged her to be relaxed and fall asleep easily.

Of course she also had clinical interventions such as Eye Movement Desensitization and Reprocessing – where memories are helped to reprocess in the brain so as to have less of an emotional imprint.

Staff continued to express wanting to know Sarah and spend time with her, but she was allowed to be in control of when she wanted to talk and what she wanted to talk about.

After seven months of consistent, intentional work we were able to see vast improvements in all areas of Sarah’s life. She appeared much more typical both in her appearance and her choice of conversation. She was able to maintain some peer and adult relationships. Her interactions became much more balanced and “real.” Sarah progressed so well she was able to return home to live with her mother.

By meeting her underlying needs of safety (by accepting her) and belonging (by including her), we were able to extinguish her unacceptable behaviors and increase her personal motivation. After all, motivation is the belief if we engage in certain behaviors good things will happen. For Sarah, her past had proven there was no need to try because everything was out of her control. Individualizing our approach to her specific needs allowed Sarah’s internal scripts of people and the world to be rewritten – that’s true transformation.




Deci, Edward L.; Richard Flaste (1996). Why We Do What We Do: Understanding Self-Motivation.

London, England: Penguin.

Greene, Ross W. (2005, 2001, 1998). The Explosive Child. New York, NY: Harper.

Kohn, Alfie (1993/1999). Punished by Rewards: The Trouble with Gold Stars, Incentive Plans, A’s, Praise,

and Other Bribes. Boston, MA: Houghton Mifflin.

Perry & Szalavitz (2006). The Boy Who Was Raised as a Dog: And Other Stories from a Child Psychiatrist’s

Notebook–What Traumatized Children Can Teach Us About Loss, Love, and Healing. New York,

NY: Basic Books.

Pink, Daniel H. (2010). Drive – The Surprising Truth about what motivates us. Edinburgh, Scotland:

Canongate Books.

Karyn B. Purvis, Ph.D., David R. Cross, Ph.D., and Wendy Lyons Sunshine (2007). The Connected Child:

Bring Hope and Healing to Your Adoptive Family. New York, NY: McGraw-Hill.

ON THE ROAD – Back to Cottage 4


Forty years ago today I walked in to a cottage on a residential program campus on the North Side of Pittsburgh; a place that would be my own primary residence for the next three years. I would live there five days a week working with twelve girls and boys. I just took the job as a place-holder until I started law school. It turns out that law school was not meant to be part of my story. I had no intention that this would be the beginning of my career. As it turns out, it was the most meaningful and important job I’ve ever had. It set the course of my life and was the gateway to my profession. As I looked forward to this anniversary, I have reflected a great deal on that time and place.

The teachers who have influenced my life cross a wide spectrum of fame, disciplines, experience and age. There were three great influences on my professional life in the earliest days of my career. First was the work of Nicholas Hobbs and what is known simply as Re-ED. His focus on wellness rather than pathology, on teaching rather than therapy, on the future rather than the past, and on the ecology of a young person rather than serving them in isolation guided me (us) from simplistic barbarian behaviorism to the promise of being teacher-counselors.

The second was my teacher-counselor colleagues who transformed with me. Some of whom I continue to count among my closest friends. We learned together and supported each other to take risks to apply what we learned. We committed to stay and continue to be learners. We pushed each other to be the best we could be in the inexact and evolving social science, mental health, education, and juvenile justice worlds that encompassed the lives of the young people and families we served. We wanted to be the teacher-counselors that Hobbs described in The Troubled and Troubling Child: “But most of all, a teacher/counselor is a decent adult; educated, well trained; able to give and receive affection, to live relaxed, and to be firm; a person with private resources for the nourishment and refreshment of his own life; not an itinerant worker but a professional through and through; a person with a sense of the significance of time, of the usefulness of today and the promise of tomorrow; a person of hope, quiet confidence, and joy; one who has committed himself to children and to the proposition that children who are disturbed can be helped by the process of reeducation.”

The third great influence were the young people themselves. One of the Re-ED principles we learned from Nick Hobbs is “Trust between and child and adult is essential, the foundation on which all the other principles rest, the glue that holds teaching and learning together…” While Hobbs eloquence inspired us, the young people taught us how to bring that to life. We worked with them for months and sometimes years and there were many battles. The battles were for power, place, influence and understanding. Hobbs told us but they showed us the significance of being a trusted other in the life of a child. They would let us in if we showed them we cared and we were willing to earn that trust.

Once, in the midst of a chaotic breakdown of order and safety throughout the entire campus, we invited all 48 kids to come back in and help us start a new order where they had more voice and ownership in how our program ran. It wasn’t a random or haphazard decision. We had been planning to transform our program using group process principles that were part of the Re-ED approach. We did it then because it seemed like a good time to try something different.

It worked. It worked for a couple reasons. First, we were as ready as we could be at the time to implement this change. Second, and most importantly, it worked because the kids accepted our invitation and were willing to try. The first one to come in was a girl in our cottage, Gina. She was young, maybe thirteen, and yet she had a presence and a toughness that gave her influence. After she led the way, all the other kids went back to their cottages and we began our new world order in that place on the hill on the North Side of Pittsburgh. In a recent post I mentioned Bonita and there were so many others; Anna, Donna, Kim, Missy, Garnett, Zena, Danny, Tarik, Sam, Brett, Joe, Bobby & Jimmy. Some of them want us to stay a part of their lives and stay in touch.

Among the abundant blessings I count in my life is the influence of those young people as teachers and constant reminders that our work has meaning, purpose and power. Now, forty years later, I am part of an organization begun by a different man, visionary in his own unique way, who said that kids “just need a shirttail to hang onto.”

Today, I heard from Steve Kozak, one of that group of teacher-counselors I mentioned earlier, who now leads a program that will move young people back in to Cottage 4 for the first time in 34 years. The place we used to live and work was transformed from a residential setting to offices and has been recently renovated to serve its original purpose.


I hope those young people find peace, hope and promise in the company of committed, passionate learners who live up to the honor of being teacher-counselors. As for me, I’m not done yet and I hope to have the chance to meet and work with you sometime soon

ON THE ROAD – In Memory of Bonita Smith


In Memory of Bonita Smith

During my forty years in this work, I have been blessed by the presence of many wonderful teachers. The often-stated phrase “on the shoulders of giants” applies to the careers of many of us working with young people and families across a range of related disciplines. Before most of those teachers made their way in to my life, however, the learning curve was very steep.

My introduction to this work, in a residential program in Pittsburgh, was really by happenstance and with my every intention of proceeding on another career path. My two teammates and I worked on a rotating live-in schedule of four days on and two days off and much of our learning was through immersion. In the earliest days of my career I had yet to be trained in much of anything except the rudimentary understanding of behaviorism imparted to us by the more senior staff. The light at the end of the tunnel was Re-ED, based on the work of Nicholas Hobbs, Campbell Loughmiller and others. Re-ED was among the first strength-based, principle-based frameworks for working with vulnerable young people and their families.

The first group of young people that my colleagues and I worked with helped us evolve from behavioral barbarians to teacher-counselors. The primary reason I stayed in this work rather than pursue my intended path were the young people I worked with and among them was thirteen year old Bonita Smith. Bonita was a very pretty girl with a very sweet nature.  She could also be very stubborn and opinionated.  Bonita and I bonded in the quiet time early on Sunday mornings. I would be awake early to drink my coffee and read the Sunday paper. Predictably, I would hear the bedroom door open down the hall and then the shuffling of Bonita’s slippers heading toward the dining room. In that first hour on those mornings we connected, two young people in different stages of development trying to figure it out.

Our residential program, like many others in those days, received supplies in bulk from the most economical vendor. We dispensed personal hygiene supplies to our kids through whatever system was in place and thought little of it. One day, Bonita was sharing her opinion on the quality of the supplies using specific descriptors such as “cheap and nasty”. With her squinty-eyed look, she was intent on making sure I understood that she was really serious about this. Countering with my own opinion, I lectured her about how she should appreciate what was given to her. What happened next changed things, especially me.

Bonita, clearly not benefiting from my lecture, stood up in a way that indicated she was exasperated with me. With her hand on her hip and her squinty look a bit tighter she said, “Mr. Freado, you don’t know anything about being a black girl!”

The immediate silence that followed caught her attention and she just stood there as my mind searched for a response. I had no ready lecture for that. All I could say was, “What do I need to know?” At that, Bonita yelled down the hall for Missy and told her to bring Mr. Sedley, my teammate, Craig.

Bonita and Missy proceeded to teach us about their needs; skin and hair care, among others. They were quite clear and effective. Craig and I became their advocates for change.  This resulted in changes in the way supplies were purchased and dispensed by the program.

Bonita’s admonition and explanation was a significant point in my own learning and growth as a teacher-counselor. Sometimes our best teachers are the young people and families in whose lives we are thrust. I have told this story often because of its significance to me and my hope that others can also benefit. Most recently, I told this story in a keynote at a conference at the University of Winnipeg. Two weeks later I learned from my colleague and friend, Steve Kozak, that Bonita passed away last year.

I was very sad to hear this news in many ways. Part of my sadness is that I never got to tell her about how important she has been in my career and life. I’m sure she knew at the time. Bonita and I had more time together after that important teachable moment and she had the chance to see and benefit from what she influenced.

Thank you, Bonita, with love from an increasingly more enlightened Mr. Freado.

ON THE ROAD – Where do we fall, where do we stand?


Where do we fall, where do we stand?

Courage is what it takes to stand up and speak;
courage is also what it takes to sit down and listen.
Winston Churchill

Imagine that you chaperone a group of fifty-seven elementary and middle school students on an outing.  There, these young students were accosted with verbal insults and doused with beer, not by other students but rather by other adults.

As I imagine myself being in that situation as a chaperone, I think of the anger that would well up in me and my struggle to focus on safety while setting a good example for the kids. It would be a challenge to re-channel my fight reaction to a more measured response. That’s just me and yet I know it isn’t just me; many of you might also experience the same double struggle in this situation.

On January 24, 2015, Native American students, along with their chaperones, from American Horse School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota did experience the scene described above. They attended a minor league hockey game at the Rapid City Convention Center. The students earned this outing for their exemplary behavior and academic achievement in school.

The Rapid City Rush hockey team enjoys a lot of support from throughout the community.  These students took particular interest as the team recently had two Canadian First Nations players on their roster. According to an article on Indianz.com, “What is often overlooked inside of the arena is a unique sense of unity that transcends the socio-economic, racial, and geographic divisions that often keep South Dakotans at an arms distance from one another.” According to one Native fan in attendance at a recent game, “The Rush hockey games may be the only place in the state where 5,000 people can be seen cheering for Native athletes – all at the same time.”

It was during the third period while the students were enjoying an exciting game that the harassment and assault started.  The adults in a private box above their seats began to taunt the students and their chaperones with racial slurs. They also threw beer on the students. The chaperones escorted the students from the game early. Later authorities from Pine Ridge filed a formal complaint.

The Rapid City Journal reported that within days of the incident, a witness came forward to provide a perspective.  This witness, a man from Sturgis, SD; said he was seated 10 to 15 seats away from the American Horse School student group. The witness, a season ticket-holder said this student group was one of the best-behaved groups of young people he has seen in his years of attending games.

While too far away to hear what was happening, the witness said he saw two men in the skybox above the students “who seemed to be taking real pleasure in continuing the confrontation” with an adult member of the school group.

The group left before the game ended, leaving three empty rows. The witness said the men in the skybox “seemed to gloat over what they had accomplished in chasing the student group from the game” and handed out a number of beers to other fans in what the witness said appeared to be a “celebration.” He said several other people in the skybox “seemed extremely uncomfortable with what was going on.”

The only thing necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.
Edmund Burke

The Rapid City police department responded to the complaint lodged on behalf of the students and their adult chaperones with a reported 550 hours of interviews with more than 150 people. The result was the arrest of one man, from Phillip, SD, who was charged with disorderly conduct. In a recent court decision, it was determined that the man arrested will face only a fine and no time in jail – if found guilty by a judge. That decision left many people, including the city attorney for Rapid City, dissatisfied. Final disposition of this case is expected in August.

Issues regarding racial antagonism, including this one, continue to make national and international news.  Such incidents foster important heated debates.

The disposition of this incident as a legal matter is just one small, yet significant, part of the challenge. By all accounts these young people and the adults accompanying them were engaged in appropriately cheering on their team. It may be that the only thing that distinguished them from others in that part of the arena was being Native Americans. To be accosted verbally and otherwise just for being who they are is part of what they experience on a more regular basis than many of us would like to believe. The sensitivities of historic trauma and historic mistrust cannot be minimized or ignored.

The mayor of Rapid City, Sam Kooiker, has issued several statements regarding this issue expressing his concerns for improving race relations in the city and elsewhere in the region. Mayor Kooiker said, “I have said many times before and since this incident that improving race relations is an ongoing endeavor and I have appreciated the willingness and efforts of tribal officials and the support of many people, both Native and non-Native, to remain committed to that effort.  We cannot let the actions of one person derail those efforts, nor should we allow the incident to define the character, ideals and values of people in Rapid City and our region.”

Mayor Kooiker expressed hope for the future, “During my tenure as mayor, the City has produced a number of efforts to improve race relations in the community and moving forward, I remain committed to this effort.  Improving race relations is a constant goal, one that cannot be resolved in a day, week or month, but a commitment that must be ongoing and vigilant in its purpose.”

This incident should be of particular interest to all of us who work with children. In middle childhood and early adolescence, their developing brains are forming a framework for who they are becoming and how they will find their way in the world. These kids were attending school, participating in a positive way, and achieving academically. They should be welcomed with open arms and open minds. My research on this topic didn’t indicate whether the public address announcer recognized this group of achievers and they were cheered by the crowd so I’ll hope that happened too. It is most likely true that the abuse they experienced there was the result of only a few people. It’s up to the rest of us – each and every one of us-  to ensure that those few don’t have the loudest voices or the greatest impact. It’s as important now as it ever was.

Additional Information:

Rapid City Journal February 18, 2015:

Rapid City Journal July 24, 2015:





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Helping Them Find Their Way

A “mob” of Aboriginal kids sat in a group and played music while others played basketball.  They beamed with pride as they ascended the climbing wall that had been constructed for the special day. Painted faces with butterflies, Spiderman and other designs adorned the smiling faces of many of the nearly 100 young people there. It was family day at Woolaning Homeland Christian College, one of nine schools in the Northern Territory Christian Schools system. This was a day of celebration in the residential school. Families came to see exhibits of their children’s school work, interact with the staff and school leadership, and show the younger siblings of the students already enrolled what the next step for them might be like.

Sitting just outside Litchfield National Park in the Northern Territory of Australia, 2 hours’ drive from Darwin, Woolaning operates on land generously leased from the Petherick family, traditional land owners in that area. The school was a vision of a family matriarch and began in 1992 in collaboration with the NT Christian Schools system. This is a big event of the school year in this program and takes a great deal of planning and effort on the part of the staff to make it a success. In addition to the food, accommodations, supervision and festivities, transportation is a significant undertaking. Because the program serves students from across a large expanse of the Northern Territory, staff drive small buses up to six hours to bring families to the event and return them home the following day. It is exhausting, satisfying work for thirty staff members who carry out their faith, in part, through the work they do with these precious young people throughout the year.

The Aboriginal people in Australia are among the oldest indigenous cultures in the world. While their culture and traditions remain intact in many respects, life for the aboriginal people in Australia can be very difficult. Like indigenous people in every part of the world, the presence of colonists from different places and cultures overtook their country and forced many changes on them. They have survived and adapted through the arrival of foreign hunters, the farmers, the miners, and many families continue to try to survive the “Stolen Generation” that began at the end of the nineteenth century.

Aboriginal children continue to be 8-10 times more likely to experience some sort of governmental intervention or out-of-home care than non-aboriginal children. Life expectancy for aboriginal people in Australia is more than 10 years less than for non-aboriginal people. The Australian government and the aboriginal people themselves are working to address many of the significant issues that remain as a result of colonization and the resulting traumas. Aboriginal people continue to struggle to find a healthy balance between traditional ways and the constantly evolving world around them.

Aboriginal children between the ages of twelve and eighteen are enrolled in Woolaning Homeland Christian College by their families. While there the children experience support for their cultural, spiritual, health, and academic and vocational needs.They are served by a very dedicated staff of house parents, educators and administrators with demonstrated compassion and commitment. The experience children have in this setting can build capacity to not only enhance their survival but also help prepare them to thrive.

Additional Information:
Woolaning Homeland Christian College and Northern Territory Christian Schools


The Stolen Generation