January 3, 1986. It was my first day of work at St. Labre. Just weeks earlier I had withdrawn from college, unsure of what I wanted to do with my life. A couple with whom I had been friends for years worked at St. Labre and encouraged me to apply for a vacant youth group home houseparent position. “I need a job, I reasoned…just for a few months while I sort things out and then get back to school.” It would be the beginning of a, so far, 30-year journey.
As I got to know the kids, they became my inspiration. I remember a friend asking me if it was depressing working with kids who came from troubled backgrounds. I told him that just the opposite was true. We had sibling groups who had lost both of their parents or one of their parents with the other parent unable to care for them. Some of the children had suffered horrific physical, emotional and sometimes sexual abuse. And, yet, in the group homes, where they knew they were safe and cared for, they could be kids again, and happy. I told my friend that in comparison to what some of the kids had gone through, I had absolutely nothing that I felt justified in complaining about.
Of course, it wasn’t always easy. Like the time two of the boys went on a weekend visit to their father’s house. Their father, a quadriplegic who had all his limbs amputated, was often understandably bitter. When they returned the younger of the two was sullen and withdrawn. On my asking, he said he was okay and asked to go to his room. A short while later, I heard the crash of glass breaking. He had thrown an exercise weight through his bedroom window. I rushed to his room and just as I got to his door, he came out saying that he was leaving. Concerned for his safety, I reached out to stop him. He punched me in the ribs, resulting in a brief scuffle that ended with my restraining him until he calmed down. His father had told him that he only had room in his heart to love one of his kids and it wasn’t him. We talked for a long while after which he apologized for punching me and I apologized for restraining him. The next day, after the kids went to school, I climbed a nearby hill and wept, thinking of what his father had told him.
For years after his discharge from the group home, he occasionally would stop by my office to visit and he delighted in my self-description of being a “Crowrean” because of my Crow father and Korean mother. One evening while in Billings I stopped at a grocery store to pick up a few items. I heard a voice saying “Hey, Crowrean!” Looking around, I didn’t see anyone so I proceeded to put my items in the car. I heard it again. This time, he stepped out from the shadows, a broad grin on his face. We visited briefly as it was late and I still had a two-hour drive home. It was the last time that I saw him alive.
He died from injuries that he sustained in a fight on the streets of Billings. His brother, on seeing me enter the church for his funeral, uttered in an oddly surprised voice, “Hey, Mr. Yarlott’s here!” (He always called me Curtis when I worked in the group homes.) He came over, shook my hand and gave me a hug, thanking me for coming before leading me over to see his brother lying in the casket and to introduce me to his friends as one of the people who raised him and his brother. My friends who had recruited me to St. Labre so many years earlier entered the church shortly after I did and received a similar reaction and introduction.
I thought of how it was life coming full circle – me, the couple who first recruited me to St. Labre, and a number of our kids from our days working in the St. Labre youth group homes-brought back together by the tragedy of losing a young man far too early. Many of our former group home kids, I learned, were struggling to make it and I was reminded of the words of Sioux spiritual leader Black Elk who spoke of his nation’s hoop being broken and scattered. In coming full circle, I realized that the hoop of so many Native American people still is broken and scattered. I had an overwhelming sense that I hadn’t done enough. It is a feeling that still drives me today.
Crow Chief Plenty Coups said of his people, “I want them to be healthy, to become again the race they have been”. I want it, too, for every Native American child served by St. Labre.
Only with the help of incredibly caring people, like you, will there be more and greater moments of hope for the Indian children at St. Labre. Every day I see the “miracle” made possible only through your prayers and generosity. That is what gives me great hope and confidence to carry forward and keep my promise to the Indian children that I made those many years ago on top of that nearby hill.
These children are ever in my heart and I am so grateful for each person who also has made room in his or her heart for every single Native American child at St. Labre.
Isalúutshíile – “Yellow Arrows”
Executive Director, St. Labre Indian School