Boozhoo… my name is Norma Jean and I’m from the White Earth reservation in northern Minnesota. Today, I am also known by – kiizhiibaakiizhiigok – you will soon come to know and understand the strength it took me to tell my story…
I am truly honored to have this opportunity. Telling my story has been surprisingly harder than I thought it was going to be. It brings back a lot of memories and emotions but I feel it is important to tell my story so that other young people don’t feel alone and know there’s always hope. My dad passed away when I was 5. When that happened, my life became chaos. There were multiple men coming through the house, lots of crack use, alcohol, and marijuana. I felt like I had suddenly become invisible. My mom seemed to look right past me. There was no one to take care of me, I would scrounge for food, and get myself to school. School was my safe place. I remember sitting at the front of the bus so that I could talk to the bus driver.
When I was about 12, my mom and I became homeless. I was in and out of shelters, couch hopping, living with family members, and then back to homeless again.
We were living with my aunt when my mom called the Ain Dah Yung Center. Something happened between the two of them and we couldn’t stay anymore. I remember my mom said, “a van is coming to get you, take all your stuff and go with them!” I was really nervous and then I saw the big house…a really big house. That night the staff did a smudging ceremony with me, a Native ritual, that made me feel instantly connected to my culture and the people at the shelter. Over the next two weeks the staff made me feel safe and wanted. They took care of me and I didn’t feel invisible anymore. I became involved with Ninijanisag (the Youth Prevention Program) and started singing with the drum group. When I went back home a stayed involved with Ninijanisag.
Life stayed difficult over the next few years, and knowing I need to take care of myself, when I turned 16, I packed my bags and headed back to the Ain Dah Yung Center. I was eventually admitted into the Ain Dah Yung Center’s Youth Lodge, their transitional living program, which was an amazing experience. There were definitely lots of meetings and rules, which at first was annoying, but as time passed, I got used to it and the staff embraced and supported me. With their help:
· I started getting better grades in high school
· I learned how to manage money and shop on a budget
· I learned how to take responsibility and manage my time
I even went to my junior prom. The staff helped me pick out a dress and when I was stood up at the last minute, they dropped me off. I ended up having a fantastic time and even rode home in a limo!
You know, it was during this time that the Ain Dah Yung Center staff arranged for me to receive my Native name. That was a new beginning for me. My mom was there, and for the first time in my life, I felt strengthened…whole. At that moment, I knew I could do anything if I put my mind to it. I have not been homeless since my time with the Ain Dah Yung Center. I am working and in my free time I volunteer at ADYC’s Cultural Family Nights.
The staff at the Ain Dah Yung Center have always shown me love, respect, kindness and understanding. Because of them, I know that I am not alone and that I am a person who deserves love.
Now you know why I now have the STRENGTH to share my story
Miigwetch (Thank you)