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Answering the call with art

Some know it only as a church. For others, it is a way station where tribe members can go for a decent meal. But for kids, St. Elizabeth Episcopal Church is just a place to have fun.

Completed more than 100 years ago, the structure is the only original building that remains in White Rocks, Utah, since other buildings were destroyed years ago in a fire. In fact, the church, which served as a hospital and a school, is one of only a handful of buildings in the town at all.

Besides a tribal Laundromat and a few scattered structures, St. Elizabeth’s is it.

White Rocks, located on the Ute Reservation, is miles from the ease and convenience of modern life, but isolation doesn’t make the town desolate.

Every Wednesday since the middle of October, St. Elizabeth’s parish hall has served as the meeting place for Ute kids and teenagers to come together for an arts and crafts program and a square meal. Kids from six to 17 learn beadwork, origami and how to fashion a flute out of unruly raw materials. They tell stories, sculpt clay and gossip with each other.

Pat Drewry Sanger implemented Arts Kids and Arts Teens in Summit County schools to bring children from different backgrounds together and give them ways to express themselves positively. Hundreds of kids have matriculated through the program, but until the spin-off classes were offered at the Ute Reservation, Sanger had never tested the program outside the Park City area.

She didn’t expand the program earlier, she said, because she hadn’t been able to raise the money to do so. That changed when she received grants from the Utah Arts Council, the American Indian Folk Art Council and the Episcopal Diocese of Utah. She partnered with St. Elizabeth’s through the Episcopal Church in Park City, St. Luke’s.

The program appears to be reaching kids on the reservation. Enrollment recently topped 18 kids in each program, and some travel as far as 50 miles to participate. Kids enjoy music, dance drama and movement, and they also look forward to a simple but substantial meal around 6 p.m. every week.

"From when the idea came to me, I’ve always wanted to train people in other locations to help children with different needs," Sanger explained Wednesday. "So many kids are angry and violent. I saw a partnership with St. Elizabeth as the opportunity to work somewhere where Arts Kids would be a good fit. We were excited for what we could do for the tribe as far as building confidence and self-esteem."

The Arts Kids program trains volunteers and facilitators to provide a safe place for kids to be kids. With the help of Ute mentors, Arts Kids has been able to bring even cynical participants more in touch with their heritage and the need for education.

Strong role models abound in the classroom. There’s Emmy Cesspooch, a 25-year-old with a bachelor’s degree in business, musician Wayne Gardner and former Head Start program director Jenny Chimburas, all members of the Ute Nation.

Sanger described herself as a catalyst; eventually, she wants tribe members to feel comfortable taking over the program.

The student-to-teacher ratio in the classroom, about one grown-up for every five young artists, would make most public educators in the state salivate. "This is a learning experience for the kids to have the structure they don’t always have at home," Sanger said. "They have structure at school, but some don’t often go to school."

Besides Ute volunteers and facilitators, Sanger pointed to Rev. Sue Duffield as one of the keys to the program’s early success. Duffield, the vicar at St. Elizabeth’s, has lived on the reservation for seven years. In that time, she has seen programs come and go, which prompted her to offer a simple line of advice for Arts Kids organizers: Don’t make promises you can’t keep. So far, Duffield said she has been impressed. "The program has been very successful," she said. "The young people are engaged in the activities and they like it. We know this because the attendance is good and they keep coming back."

One of the strengths of Arts Kids is that it encourages ancestral pride rather than dismissing it. "Our goal is to respect entirely the culture and experience of indigenous people," Duffield said.

Even with the help of programs like Arts Kids, youth on the reservation face steep odds for success. Besides alleged racial discrimination at school, most kids are tempted to join gangs and others attempt suicide.

Some boys feel like they’re not going to live past 21," Sanger explained, a fear confirmed the day before the first Arts Kids class, when a 21-year-old man killed himself.

For encouragement, even inspiration, with the tough task ahead, Duffield looks to the kids themselves. Last week, 10 teenage boys tried in earnest to fall into harmony with their newly minted flutes. "They were playing, you’ll love this, ‘Twinkle, Twinkle Little Star,’" Duffield smiled.


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