Moose Lake Star Gazette - Serving Carlton and Pine Counties Since 1895

By Traci LeBrun
Moose Lake Star-Gazette 

A new approach to truancy

A Cultural Community Coach is hired by county and band to engage young people in their culture


Courtesy photo

Pictured is the new Cultural Community Coach, Lawrence Staples, who was hired as a joint position between the Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and Pine County Probation to address at-risk behavior and truancy in the area. From left to right are Nadan Davis, Cedar LaFave, Lawrence Staples and Cameron Staples. Lawrence Staples works with these Crossroads Learning Center students along with a number of other students from Willow River, East Central, Hinckley and Pine City schools.

As students pass by in the halls of Crossroads Learning Center in Sandstone, Lawrence Staples greets them with "Aanii" and follows up with "Aniish na?" In Ojibwe, this means "Hello" and "How are you?"

Some of them greet him back with "Bozhoo". Others look perplexed, struggling to find the right word. He helps them with "Aniin".

Something registers, and they smile and tell him, "Oh yeah, aniin," and go on their way.

Staples was recently hired as cultural community coach, a new Pine County position, in response to truancy and increasing out-of-home placement costs from the Native community. The position is dually funded by Mille Lacs Band of Ojibwe and Pine County.

His main goal is to be a support for the Native American students and remind them of their heritage, a heritage that seems to be increasingly removed from their current value system. Staples works directly with Native American students in East Central, Hinckley-Finlayson, Pine Grove, Pine City, and Willow River school districts. He also works with the alternative schools Vision in Pine City and Crossroads which is part of the East Central school district.

"I try to instill and explain our ancestry. I teach them about respect, how to get along with people and treat others how they would want to be treated," says Staples, "and that showing respect and honesty are the most important values."

The values, called the Gifts of the Seven Values, are foundational to Staples' teaching to the young people he works with. Those gifts include respect, love, truth, bravery, wisdom, generosity and humility. These are tools for a good life, explains Staples.

"I remind them of those seven values that will help send them in the right direction and keep them off the streets," says Staples. "In the winter months, there is storytelling time, and I share stories I grew up hearing and try to keep those stories going. We talk about different things our people have done and how they have worked hard."

The best thing Staples says he can often do is listen to the youth he works with, but he is not afraid of confronting destructive behavior either. "I tell them what it's going to do to them and keep preaching. Some don't want to hear me and some do," he said. "I just keep showing them that I care and that they have a future. I also tell them that I won't always be here and they will someday be in my position in life."

Staples applied for the position after reading the job description. "It fit me so well, and I knew the people already, along with the schools and county," he said. "I knew the kids and they know me, and I can sit down and talk with them. I try to catch the kids before they get in trouble and nip it in the bud."

Staples was raised on a reservation in Danbury and graduated from high school in Webster, Wisconsin. He attended college at the University of River Falls-Wisconsin, and then joined the United States Army serving two terms traveling to Honduras, Bosnia and South Korea. He worked in a variety of jobs such as diesel mechanic, construction worker and maintenance supervisor.

His most recent position was serving as a mentor for five years at Pine Grove Elementary. There he held cultural events, speaking for Sons of Tradition, a Native American youth program, and working with Hinckley-Finlayson schools. "I dealt with kids in courts and was a community service leader. We taught kids work ethic, like cutting grass or shoveling snow for the elders. Our way is to take care of your babies and your elders," says Staples.

Staples is not in his office much, he says. So far, he has done a lot of school visits, has visited kids in treatment facilities to show them support, attended truancy meetings in court, met with probation officers, attended meetings for other juveniles and spends time keeping people up to date on what's going on with the young people he works with.

"It's always a challenge, and you don't know what's coming next," says Staples. "There are some people that really care about the kids out there. It's great to work with Terry Fawcett and Cheryl Bjerke."

Some of the challenges he faces is dealing with drug use and a lack of parenting. "Many of the kids have no one to confide in and to fall back on. To have that safety net and to be able to talk to mom or dad or grandma is so important in a young person's life," says Staples. "There is no such thing as a bad kid, just wrong guidance."


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