Native Students, You are the Ones We Prayed for

I’m inspired and moved beyond words by the posts from SD GEARUP students to their Facebook and social media pages about how much the program means to them. I have been reluctant to comment on anything publicly, for fear that anything I say may cause more harm or damage.

Nothing anyone has written in the media I’ve read, however, has been from the perspective of GEARUP students. It breaks my heart to see the adults, the people supposed to protect our children, tear this program apart in the media.

None, apparently, seem concerned with its accomplishments. That’s the state of Native affairs in South Dakota and our own communities. People have come out of the woodwork to attack something they clearly don’t understand.

Our young people face enough challenges, the continued assault on the GEARUP program, a program that has helped thousands, is a clear assault on Native education.

Consider that about 75 percent (or more) of Native high schools students drop out. Amidst the myriad other depressing crises facing Native youth, critics should consider the real perpetrator of these crimes—a system that has allowed this happen, not the people who try to make life a bit more livable for our already persecuted Native youth.

When something negative happens, now they’re interested in GEARUP? That concerns me deeply.

Where were your cameras and insights as we achieved success, demonstrated our brilliance, and made history as Native youth?

Some of us have been doing this for decades now. I ask the many critics of this program, where were twenty years ago? Where were you ten years ago? Where were you this year?

I did not see you working with our children or documenting their achievements, celebrating their successes.

This program isn’t for adults. It’s for Native students, students such as myself. Students from the GEARUP family.

I want to share with you what this program means to me. GEARUP saved my life more than once. I don’t know where I would be without it.

I’m currently finishing my doctoral degree here in Albuquerque at the University of New Mexico and I’m from Cohort Five (I’m an old guy!). On a recent visit, I saw a lot of my former students at the University of South Dakota, my alma mater. There were so many Native students and most were GEARUP students. I couldn’t believe it! It made me well up with hope that things are changing. Our young people are on the move!

When I attended USD, there were 17 Native incoming freshmen. I was the only one to graduate with my four year degree. The reason for my success was four years of preparation from GEARUP (at the time it was SKILL) programs. Today, I imagine there are more than just seventeen incoming Native freshmen, and I imagine many will graduate, not just one.

I was thirteen when I first met Stacy Phelps. I had no ambitions to go to college. It never crossed my mind. My first summer away at SKILL, I didn’t call home until the week it was time to pick me up!

I didn’t know it at the time, but I was getting ready for the rest of my life. I was too busy trying to be “cool” with peers to realize that. I took it for granted, as we do when we’re young. Now I look back and understand what was happening to me.

I grew up in Chamberlain. There weren’t many Natives in my high school, so going to SKILL each summer with Native men and women who had earned bachelor’s, master’s, and even doctoral degrees was nothing short of inspiring.

The program seemed foreign to me, since many of my experiences living in Chamberlain were alienating and feeling like I didn’t belong.

My GEARUP family, however, was one of brilliance, inspiration, and belonging. It always has been. Nothing in the media about GEARUP has yet featured that aspect.

As the years passed, Stacy became a brother to me and our families became close. My mom was a single parent, raising me and my brother, and I had few positive male role models in my life. I learned how to be a respectful, honorable, and responsible young Lakota man from the GEARUP program. I’m almost thirty now, and I just now understand how this program molded me into a leader and an adult. I’m sure many of us feel the same way.

It gave me the capacity to aspire to be something I never thought I could be.

When my mom passed away four years ago, my GEARUP family was there. They took care of me, they always have. Mom had worked for the program after I graduated as a student. Her lasting legacy is the GEARUP planners, “How to Go, How to Pay, How to Stay,” you may love or hate.

All of us older students and graduates send so many prayers and best wishes to GEARUP. When I was a student, there were only 30 of us. Now there’s almost 300! There are thousands of us out there. That gives me hope, and I pray for this program and the success of my former students everyday.

I want to tell Native students, especially you younger ones: You are the ones we’ve been waiting for. When we prayed, we prayed for you. Everyone at GEARUP prayed for you and worked hard to make sure you have something in this world no one can take away from you—your education.

You are the ones that are going to change this world, to make it livable again and make it a place where we have dignified lives as Native people.

You should be proud of yourselves. I am.

Whatever you may read or hear, just remember this program and all its staff have one interest in mind: you—the young people. As older people, we will do our best to make sure you have what’s rightfully yours in this world.

Hecetu Welo!

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