“Learning the Best of Both Worlds’ Cultures,” Ensign, Dec. 1975, 22–23
I can still see that young Navajo mother as I close my eyes and think. She was watching movies, taken by the Social Services workers, of Indian children living in Utah. Her tears told me when her children came into view.
She explained how important it was for her children to be on the Church Indian Student Placement Program and added, “I was on the Placement Program for two years. I stayed with a family in southern Utah for my ninth and tenth grades. I suppose I disappointed them by not returning.”
“Disappointed them?” I asked. “Tell me about your experience.”
“Oh, it was wonderful. I learned to love my foster family and they taught me many things,” she said. “Even though it has been twelve years, every time I have a decision to make, I ask myself, ‘What would my foster parents advise me to do?’ That way, I feel I can make decisions more pleasing to my Heavenly Father.”
Described by President Spencer W. Kimball in June 1974 as “an inspiration from the Lord,” the placement program matches children from approximately sixty-three tribes and twenty-one states and provinces with foster homes in Alberta and British Columbia, Canada, and in Washington, California, Idaho, Arizona, and Utah.
Over 20,000 students and 10,000 foster parents have participated in the past twenty years since a young girl who had worked all summer in the beet fields in the Sevier, Utah, area asked to stay in the area for the winter to attend school. “I’d be willing to sleep in a tent if necessary,” she said. Golden Buchanan, then a member of the stake presidency, was asked to consider the matter, and after consulting with Elder Spencer W. Kimball, then a member of the Quorum of the Twelve, Brother Buchanan and his wife decided to keep Helen John in their home. The program has developed from this small beginning.
Indian parents desiring their children to participate apply through their branch president or bishop, who interviews and orients both students and their parents to prepare them for their experience.
Each July, Social Services workers also interview students and families, consult with the branch president or bishop, and select qualified students to be placed with Latter-day Saint families.
Foster families are oriented about cultural adjustments, program policies, and coordinating their efforts with the natural parents.
After all this preparation, buses, trains, or planes transport students to processing centers where they are introduced to or reunited with foster parents.
Indian students become part of their foster families’ educational, cultural, social, and spiritual experiences; then, at the end of the school year, they return to their natural families.
Social service workers are also assigned to assist wards and branches in working with the natural parents of students on placement operating in Arizona and South Dakota. They visit families on a regular basis to coordinate the efforts of the natural and foster parents. Some results: increased communication between the parents and their children and between the foster parents and the placement children.
Understandably, these experiences have not all been without challenges; however, the dedication of foster parents and the sacrifice of natural parents frequently have greater impact than we realize.
Dr. Bahe Billy, one of the early graduates of the program, is in charge of planning for the massive Navajo irrigation project in New Mexico, which will turn 110,000 desert acres into green fields. A former counselor in the Four Corners District presidency, Brother Billy now serves as high councilor in the Farmington New Mexico Stake.
Lewis Singer, a Navajo, is on the administrative staff of the board of education in the San Juan School District; a former counselor in the stake presidency in the Page Arizona Stake and now on the high council in Monticello Utah Stake, he and his wife still find time to welcome Indian foster children into their home.
Ray Louis, who returned from placement to his home in Crystal, New Mexico, has been called to be branch president. William Nakai is a dynamic leader and past president of the Tribe of Many Feathers at Brigham Young University. Larry Dennison is the coordinator of a Navajo manpower program in the Four Corners area; and Nora Begay has been Miss Indian America.
Obviously, all the success of these young people cannot and should not be attributed entirely to the placement program. Natural families, priesthood leaders, and friends also play a vital role in the development of the youth participating in this program; but the participants themselves give great credit to the inspired placement program.
There are many placement program participants who have yet to develop and reach their potential, but every child succeeds who learns to love his Father in heaven a little more, and precious seeds planted in their hearts may someday blossom as the rose.
Verenda Rainer, an Apache, has held the title of Miss Indian BYU, has been a Relief Society president, and has supported her husband in his callings as a bishop and as a high councilor. She has also been honored many times because of her activity in the Church, in professional groups, and in community activities; now she performs the highest calling in life as wife and mother. She movingly bore her testimony at a special placement program meeting in the Temple Square Assembly Hall (April 5, 1968):
“I would like to tell you something. Eight years ago, I came into this program. I got off the bus with the clothes on my back and a few small possessions in a shoe box. … Now, I can go home with a brand new suitcase with lots of clothes, but that is not my wealth. I could go home with the clothes on my back and a small shoe box and still be rich. I can be more wealthy than any of the people on the reservation because I have something as precious as a pearl, as precious as gold, and as precious as all of the wealth in this world. I have a testimony of the gospel.”