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Young Native Students Might Lose Financial Assistance

Navajo Times, News Report , Jason Begay Posted: Sep 18, 2009

The Office of Youth Development is set to lose one of its major grants at the end of the month, a loss that could affect thousands of students living on and around the Navajo Nation.

When the Youth Opportunities Grant, a nine-year, $41 million project, expires, it will put to an end to the funding source that fed into the youth employment project and credit recovery program that helped nearly 1,000 high school students graduate in 2008 alone.

And while the office has spent the past year seeking additional funding sources, the current economic climate has severely limited funds available for community-oriented programs.

"It's tough seeking for money during this period," said Yvonne Kee-Billison, program supervisor with the Office of Youth Development, Fort Defiance Agency.

"Nationally, companies are facing all kinds of difficulties trying to just stay open," she said.

Its most recent attempt for dollars is a request to the Navajo Nation Council for $5 million that would continue funding the program for the next year.

The Budget and Finance Committee approved the legislation making the request during its regular meeting Tuesday, but members still had doubts as to where the tribe would find the money.

"We know that there are no funds available," said Harold Wauneka (Fort Defiance). "However we are choosing to proceed."

The OYD has already given out layoff notices to more than 30 employees, said Wauneka, who is sponsoring the legislation.

And while the tribe, which is coming to the end of a financially strapped budget year, is functioning with empty cash reserves, delegates and programs like OYD hold hope for a chance that the tribe will find unspent money after the 2009 fiscal year ends.

The committee approved the legislation with a 4-3 vote.

Delegates were still cautious about the funding request.

"As much as I support the youth, I think there is a better way doing this," said Nelson Begaye (Lukachukai/Tsaile/Wheatfields). "Not with amending the budget."

Any appropriations the council makes would require money in the tribe's accounts, Begaye said.

However, without the money, the Office of Youth Development would likely have to shutter several of its programs, or cut back significantly on its services.

Among those services is credit recovery program. This works in conjunction with several educational facilities throughout the reservation, including Scouts Academy in Fort Defiance, Many Farms High School, Central High School in Gallup and Din College.

The program helps identify students who might be lacking credits to graduate. OYD pays for teachers, transportation and food for weekend and evening classes that students can attend for credit. The program also pays for a counselor at the sites.

"It's a great example of how we partner with local schools to help students succeed," said Marilynn King Johnson, Office of Youth Development department manager.

In 2008, the program helped 993 students recover credits.

"We serve kids who are potentially at risk for dropping out," Kee-Billison said.

The grant also helped significantly extend the Office of Youth Development's student employment program. The program helps find employment for students ages 14 to 21 and funds the student's salary. The program also provides job training for students, an orientation into the world of work.

OYD has offered its student employment for over three decades. However, the Youth Opportunities Grant expanded the program exponentially. Even without the grant, the employment program will continue, but on a smaller scale, Johnson said.

In 2008, the program hired about 5,700 students throughout the Navajo Nation. Without the grant, the employment program will likely be cut by up to 75 percent, Johnson said.

A large number of students used both the credit recovery and employment programs hand-in-hand, Johnson said.

"The reason a lot of students failed (high school) is because they needed to support a family," Johnson said. "A lot of them are young parents. Offering them employment was a definite plus."

And the current financial downturn currently gripping the nation is forcing several students to act as part-time providers for their families, Johnson said.

"Within this past year, we've heard more of that," she said. "More than any other year, students are saying they have to help pay the utility bill, or buy their own clothes."

Still, the tribe is also feeling the same pinch, said Budget and Finance Committee members.

Leonard Chee (Birdsprings/Leupp/Tolani Lake) asked where the program would find funding beyond the coming year if the council did approve the funding request.

"It's very unlikely you're going to get $5 million a year (from the council)," Chee said.

The resolution, as passed by the committee, will likely appear before the council during its fall session in October, well after the layoff notices take effect.

Until then, the Office of Youth Development will continue its search for further money, Kee-Billison said.

"What we are trying to do here is make an investment in our children," Johnson said. "It's an investment that we'll see come back in five, 10 years from now. The youth won't ever go away."

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