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A tiny congregation links to a very big helping hand

UPPER SIOUX COMMUNITY -- The Rev. Fern Cloud never had any doubts that just a few weeks after the school year ended, youth in the Upper Sioux Community could be brought back into the learning mode for four straight days.

"Are you kidding?'' said Cloud, pastor of the Pejuhutazizi Presbyterian Church, when asked if she had any worries about attracting youths to a summer learning camp.

She pointed to Dawn Chase to explain why she had no doubts. Chase is the Indian Child Welfare director and youth specialist for the Upper Sioux Community, and has successfully made it a priority to host summer learning opportunities for the community's youths.

But Chase is the first to tell you that this year's summer learning camp is special, thanks to help that Cloud's small congregation of 30 had a big role in making possible.

The teachers at this year's camp come from places like the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Laboratory and the National Institutes of Health. The engineers, medical doctors, mathematicians, and professional educators are volunteers with the Baltimore Dakota Learning Camp, part of the Presbytery of Baltimore, Md.

They offered their time and paid their way for the opportunity. They brought along five youths to join the camp, and they were assisted by volunteers with the Dayton Avenue Presbyterian Church in St. Paul.

Beginning on the Pine Ridge Reservation in 1997, the Baltimore Presbytery has been annually offering summer learning camps to three Dakota communities in South Dakota and now in Minnesota.

The four-day camp at the Upper Sioux Community began on Monday with 31 youths, and grew in number by the day.

"They really are loving it,'' said Chase of the youth.

The focus is to make learning fun and to help young people so that they keep exercising their brains when school is out, explained Chrystie Adams, a retired educator and consultant with the Dakota Baltimore Learning Camp.

The engineers devised all sorts of fun ways to teach physics, from building potato guns to programming small robots.

There were also daily reading sessions, math games, and arts classes led by Karen Odden of the Upper Sioux Community. She helped the youths create traditional hide paintings.

There were also outdoor games and other hands-on learning activities, along with a kid-pleasing, but healthy noon meal each day.

Adams said the Dakota Baltimore Learning Camps are offered strictly as learning opportunities. There is no proselytism. "We model the love of Jesus Christ through educational partnerships and build relationships,'' said Adams.

The Baltimore volunteers sign up with the intention of returning in subsequent years, and do. Adams said 85 percent of the volunteers return each year.

Chase said the camp is an opportunity for youth in the Upper Sioux Community to be exposed to new ideas and meet new people. "It opens doors, it gets us out there and expands their horizons,'' she said.

Rachel Cunningham, co-director for the Baltimore volunteers, said she appreciates the support from the Upper Sioux Community, and its commitment to educating its youth. "They understand these kids are the future,'' she said.

Cloud said she wants that future to include annual summer camps like this one, and that is the intent of the volunteers too.

The Pejuhutazizi Presbyterian Church traces its origins to the mission started at Lac qui Parle in 1835 by Dr. Thomas Smith Williamson. It is believed to be the longest continuously operated Presbyterian Church west of the Mississippi River.

Tom Cherveny

Tom Cherveny is a regional and outdoor reporter with the West Central Tribune in Willmar, MN.

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