Leading the Way

Rob Capriccioso
July 5, 2004

When Melinda Tso, a member of the Navajo tribe, was 17, she was on probation for stealing and frequently used drugs and alcohol. Classmates at the alternative Central High School in Gallup, New Mexico thought of her name as synonymous with "drug user," she says.

"It was really hard for me to get away from it because I had been doing it for so long," she remembers. "It was really all I knew, and I thought it was a way to escape my problems at home and school, and it helped me belong." Tso would make periodic attempts to stop abusing drugs and alcohol, but without success.

Then, in October 2000, things started to change.

A man named Jim Smith, a facilitator with a local non-profit called the National Indian Youth Leadership Project (NIYLP), visited Tso's school. He told her class about one of the organization's programs called Project Venture, which focuses on youth team-building, problem solving, communication and cooperation through games and activities, like backpacking, mountain biking and camping.

At the same time, Tso's probation officer was telling her that she needed to find ways to get away from her old friends, her former companions in drinking and doing drugs. She decided to check out some of the Project Venture activities.

"I relapsed many times before that, and then [for] my first outing, I went biking, and I got sick," remembers Tso. "And it was not a good scene. My facilitator at the time, Jim Smith, was like, 'We don't leave a team member behind, we've got to go back, she's not feeling well.'"

"And I felt bad... and I was just like, 'You know what, go ahead, I'll just walk back.'"

Smith's response was a simple, "No." He said that the group started out as a team and they were going to finish as a team

From that moment on, Tso knew that the program was serious.

World of Difference
Fast forward nearly four years: Today, Tso is twenty-one and facilitates many activities with NIYLP. She hasn't abused drugs or alcohol, nor has she had any run-ins with the law, since beginning with Project Venture.

"Little did I know that throughout everything I was doing I was not only being a participant," she says. "But on my facilitator's side, he was really teaching me how to be a facilitator without me knowing it."

She has learned how to work with kids who range from elementary age on up through high school. She recently completed a program in Wyoming where she learned more hiking, survival, and team-building skills. She brought that knowledge back to NIYLP.

Many of the American Indian teenagers in the program remind her of herself when she was their age.

"I talk to a lot of the participants about my struggles and I'm like... 'Try to do good things, do good in the world. You know, I've already caused enough grief to last me and a couple of people quite a long time.'"

Teens are often surprised to hear that she ever was in trouble. When they ask her about it, she has her "Melinda's Talk" with them and explains how the program has helped her. She also advises them that that drugs and alcohol "don't get you anything but a probation officer."

In the Beginning

Mac Hall, a Cherokee educator, founded NIYLP twenty years ago because he was frustrated about the lack of support in his local school system for American Indian youth.

"Around 1980, when I was running the alternative school for the Cherokee Nation in Oklahoma, the dropout rate for Cherokee kids was like 70 percent and we were really seeing the results of that dropout rate everyday," he recalls.

Hall felt like he needed to do something more than he could accomplish in a traditional school system, although it was "very scary to break away from a full-time job as an educator."

When he moved to Gallup, New Mexico in the 1980s, he started working on combining outdoor activities with American Indian cultural practices. "Many of the concepts that are the foundation of the outdoor experiential education movement—service learning, self-directed learning, mentoring, challenge-based learning, and so on—have parallels in Native American traditions," he says.

"One example of a Native American concept that can be usefully developed by the schools is the Cherokee tradition of Gadugi," says Hall. "Among the Tsa-la-gi (Cherokee) people, the call for a Gadugi is a call to bring people together to help one another, much as the early European settlers came together for barn raisings."

Leadership That Serves Others
Hall believes that learning by providing service to others can be a big step toward breaking a "cycle of dependence" for many American Indians.

"It's really a leadership program that emphasize[s] the importance of the sort of servant-leader model that in Native communities people who are humble and give something back to their community are the real leaders," he explains. "So that service as a key element of leadership is what we really talk about, and we use all of these outdoor adventure approaches—you know, the ropes course and rock climbing and rappelling and all of that high adventure stuff—as a metaphor for the issues that kids are dealing with."

Hall and his project's staff work on incorporating these fundamentals into new programs. Project Venture has continued while new programs have been added.

Walking in Beauty, for example, is a youth development program tailored mainly to Navajo adolescent girls. It utilizes the traditional Navajo Kinalda ceremony and other culturally derived rites of passage as a metaphor for girls becoming young women.

Approximately 500 students will be served this year in Gallup through the various programs.

Achieving National Program Status
Early in 2004, something exciting happened for officials at NIYLP: The project became the first Native American program ever to be selected as a nationally-recognized model program in the prevention field by the Center for Substance Abuse Prevention (CSAP).

"We've been tracking [the program] since 1990," says Dr. Susan Carter, CSAP's evaluation coordinator. "Basically, we have found it to be very successful in preventing substance abuse, particularly alcohol, because that's really the most problematic drug in these communities."

"We knocked everybody's socks off in that evaluation study," says Hall. But it was no surprise to him: "We've been evaluating our programs all along. I've seen a lot of good programs come and go in Native communities over the last 15 years of working with CSAP, and I think the main thing that prevented a lot of them from getting into this model program recognition [process] is the fact that they didn't have consistent evaluation over a number of years. And that's the thing that you've got to have to make it through that process."

Replicating Success
The organization operates on about $1.5 million per year with some twenty full-time staff members. Hall and his colleagues have been able to keep the funding coming through competitive grant writing. NIYLP is now funded partially through behavioral health grants from the state of New Mexico and foundation grants.

Hall says that facilitators should contact him via the Web to discuss the components necessary to get replication projects started. He wants to talk to interested groups before they begin to help ensure success.

He advises others with promising youth programs to begin evaluating their programs and collecting data to become science-based prevention programs.

Hall wants to spread the model across the country—it's already in about 25 communities other than Gallup—but interested groups must find their own funding sources. Hall has been trying to develop a training program to help other communities raise funds. It costs about $250,000 to $300,000 per year to develop the program, he estimates.

Lani Bowman, a native Hawaiian, is currently overseeing one NIYLP replication project called Kohala's Project Venture. "We have adapted it to the Hawaiian culture—our values are very similar to Native American values as far as stewardship of the land and respect of the land."

Hall is most excited when young people who participated in the program in the past, such as Melinda Tso, come back and work as service staff. "I love hearing program graduates reflect on their experiences because those kids go on to be successful, and they're role models in their community."

Tso hopes to start college soon, but she says that she also plans on remaining with NIYLP. "My job never ends with this now because I do it at home, too," she says. "I talk to my own nieces and nephews—I call them my kids because I feel like when I was younger I raised them—and they see the difference in the way I talk to people, the way just a lot has changed."