DENVER — “The bottom line is the safety of children, but also the importance of family,” said Lucille Echohawk, who co-founded the Denver Indian Family Resource Center almost 24 years ago.
Now 80 years old and still volunteering at the Center, Echohawk said the need for culturally responsive help for Native American families and youth remains high in the Denver metro area.
“The ultimate vision of this organization is that we will have so many strong families in the Native American community here that there will be no native children in foster care,” she said. “Perfect, great goal to have; hard one to achieve. But we continue to work hard to meet that goal.”
Although Echohawk has retired several times, she keeps coming back to share her experience. She’s not only learned how to run a nonprofit that connects the community with services but she’s experienced those systems herself.
"I'm big on walking my talk, and I took a child from the public child welfare system many years ago, as a single parent,” Echohawk said.
When Echohawk adopted her daughter, she was 7 years old. She came from a tribe closely related to Echohawk but had spent years in the public child welfare system.
“It was just such an education and such a privilege for my family to come together and support her,” Echohawk said. “I often tell people, that my daughter taught me everything I know about this system, as well as the juvenile justice system, and has informed my work ever since.”
The Center is “that go-between resource” connecting Native families and youth with tribal nations and county governments to get help with mental health, housing and other needs.
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To keep Native families together, Echohawk said her group stays “very cognizant of the cultures that Native families come from. And that's easier said than done, because the Native American community of this country is the most diverse of all its diverse populations.”
That’s why the Center hires all Native staff, like Jeyavani Phelps, an Oglala Lakota from Pine Ridge, South Dakota.
“What we're doing here is helping our youth connect to their culture and their identity as a Native person,” Phelps said. She moved to Denver and joined the Center about a year ago.
Phelps was inspired to work with Native youth after getting help herself. As a teenager, she went through a suicide prevention program on her Lakota reservation.
“It helped me and then being able to help others was a way of helping myself, and my siblings and my mom,” Phelps said.
Mental health help is among the most in-demand services, along with housing.
“So many families we see have housing issues, and families can't be healthy if they don't have a proper roof over their head,” Echohawk said.
The Center now partners with its sister organization, the Native American Housing Circle, to meet that need.
But their work is facing obstacles. The group is going through a budget shortfall and soon they’ll be forced to leave the building where they operate.
“We acquired space here at a very affordable rent rate given the location of the property,” Echohawk said. “But we were told upfront that the building owners had plans to develop this whole block sometime in the future.”
Now, “we need to be ready to move on fairly short notice,” she said.
They’ve hired a realtor and hope to find a space to accommodate both the Center and the Housing Circle. Echohawk hopes community members may have recommendations for a new spot, and that some can chip in to help cover the rent.
"Every penny helps,” she said. “The work goes on, and the challenges abound. But I'm very encouraged.”
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