Just after the Ge-niigaanizijig youth program was launched and a new director hired, COVID-19 changed everyone’s plans, creating unforeseen challenges and requiring a quick response by staff in order to continue providing services to youth.
Ge-niigaanizijig is a comprehensive after-school mentoring program with four main components or pillars: culture, community, career, and education. The new program grew from a merger of the Niigaan program, which was operated by the Education Department, and the WiiDoo program, which was operated by Aanjibimaadizing.
The Education Department continues to employ youth mentors for students in kindergarten through sixth grade. Aanjibimaadizing, using federal funding, employs teen mentors to work with students from grade 7 through 20 years of age.
Aanjibimaadizing Director Tammy Wickstrom, who developed the new program with former Niigaan Director Byron Ninham, said Ge-niigaanizijig provides more structure for kids and parents, with less paperwork, more consistency, and better partnerships with families and schools.
Carlos Merrill was hired as Ge-niigaanizijig Director and came on board in early March. A week later, most of the staff was furloughed due to the Stay Home order and the closure of Grand Casinos.
"It was a little bit of a challenge, but Tammy really knows what she’s doing," said Carlos. "I have a pretty extensive background in technology, so the transition into a digital environment was not as difficult as it might have been."
Carlos describes Ge-niigaanizijig as "a youth empowerment program" that provides mentorship to students, gives them healthy ways to spend time after school, and helps them with transitions from childhood through adolescence to adulthood.
Carlos understands the challenges students face growing up with one foot in tribal communities and another in a society dominated by non-Indians. He wants to give students a strong sense of their culture while helping them avoid some of the usual pitfalls like drugs and alcohol.
He emphasizes mentoring in part because of his experience growing up. Carlos moved around a lot as a kid — attending schools in Wisconsin, Mille Lacs, and Brainerd — and his mentors helped him through those changes. "When I was younger, I did have mentors, people telling me what path to take, and for the most part I listened," said Carlos. "My mentors helped me stay on that path."
The K-6 program focuses on fun group activities including sports, games, and arts. "We want to keep them interested in the program so they stick with it," said Carlos.
Engaging the younger members with an interesting program will hopefully keep them in the program throughout their teenage years.
As they move into adolescence, the program will shift to self-discovery, work experience, career exploration, and college prep. Carlos would like the program to become a positive stepping stone for teens to ease the transition into college, work apprenticeships, and adulthood. Having members look back and credit Ge-niigaanizijig as a major influence in their success is one of the many goals of the program.
Ge-niigaanizijig doesn’t end when students finish high school, but helps students make the transition to adulthood.
Carlos’s experience also helped him see the need for guidance beyond high school, as he moved to the Twin Cities and bounced around from job to job. "Not everyone has it figured out by the time they’re 18, so we don’t want to cut them off when they finish high school," Carlos said. "We want to keep providing guidance and good experiences into adulthood to keep them on a positive path."
The Ge-niigaanizijig program is available in all districts, with local coordinators overseeing mentors. Each district program will have a mentor for K-6 and another for 7th grade through age 20.
Carlos would like to thank his team of Coordinators and youth mentors for the work they do and who make the success of this program possible. Coordinators are Stacy Boyd in District I, Cheyanne Peet in District II, Jennifer Gahbow in IIa, Stanley Nayquonabe in Hinckley, and Mardell Thomas in Aazhoomog. District III has two coordinators because the program has two locations: Aazhoomog Community Center for the K-6th grade tier and Meshakwad Community Center in Hinckley for 7th graders and up.
For now, programming is online, but once schools are back in session, staff will work on safely returning to traditional, face-to-face activities.
Ge-niigaanizijig is enrolling students now. To sign up, call Carlos at 320-674-4347 or any of the District Coordinators: Stacy in District I at 320-674-0407, Cheyanne in District II at 320-362-1608, Jennifer in District IIa at 320-630-0968, or Stanley in District III at 320-364-3858.