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New treatment center for Native American youths

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TAOS PUEBLO – At the beginning of next year, Native American youths will have a new option, closer to home, to help them recover from problems with substance abuse and mental health.

This 25-bed residential treatment center on Taos Pueblo is expected to open in January. It will offer substance abuse and mental health services to Native American youths, primarily from the eight northern pueblos, but also from around the state. (Jackie Jadrnak/Albuquerque Journal)

This 25-bed residential treatment center on Taos Pueblo is expected to open in January. It will offer substance abuse and mental health services to Native American youths, primarily from the eight northern pueblos, but also from around the state. (Jackie Jadrnak/Albuquerque Journal)

“This is an effort by Native Americans to help Native Americans,” said Elias Vigil, program director of Circle of Life. “The idea is helping people who had very little help in the past.”

He was talking about a new, 25-bed adolescent residential treatment center that is nearing the end of construction on Taos Pueblo. With $5.6 million in federal stimulus funding, the center was built under the auspices of the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council. That council’s Circle of Life program already offers behavioral health services to its communities and operates a 14-bed substance abuse residential treatment program for men, New Moon Lodge, at Ohkay Owingeh Pueblo.

On Monday, people involved with the new treatment center got a tour of the facility and laid plans for a grand opening celebration from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Nov. 22. Workers still were painting, adding fixtures and more, but plans are to open in January.

Gil Vigil, executive director of the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council, stands in front of a new residential treatment facility under construction on Taos Pueblo for youths 13 to 18 years old with addiction problems. (Jackie Jadrnak/Albuquerque Journal)

Gil Vigil, executive director of the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council, stands in front of a new residential treatment facility under construction on Taos Pueblo for youths 13 to 18 years old with addiction problems. (Jackie Jadrnak/Albuquerque Journal)

Dennis Letters will be director of administration for the new facility, which broke ground in April and had its foundation laid in May. It will employ about 40 people. WHPacific Inc. handled engineering/architecture for the center, while Flintco Inc. is in charge of construction.

“For me, this is a dream come true,” said Rebecca Herrera, clinical director for Circle of Life’s treatment programs. “We’ve been sending Native kids all over the country for inpatient services. This is in our backyard – and it’s community-based.”

Youths have been going to programs in Colorado and California, said Gil Vigil, executive director of the Eight Northern Indian Pueblos Council. “This will be a lot closer to our communities,” he added.

Or in many cases, teens didn’t go anywhere, simply sent back to their communities with few services after running afoul of the law. “A lot of these kids now have nowhere to go,” Elias Vigil said.

Manuel Lopez of Gallery Painting in Albuquerque paints a door frame in a new adolescent treatment facility at Taos Pueblo on Monday. (Jackie Jadrnak/Albuquerque Journal)

Manuel Lopez of Gallery Painting in Albuquerque paints a door frame in a new adolescent treatment facility at Taos Pueblo on Monday. (Jackie Jadrnak/Albuquerque Journal)

While members of the eight northern pueblos will have priority for services, the center also expects to get Native youths from around the state, particularly Albuquerque, he added. “We’re expecting to get a lot of referrals from the urban Indian population,” he said.

Native Americans have more than their share of social problems, showing up in the statistics with more teen pregnancies, suicides, unemployment, substance abuse and more, Elias Vigil said. “This project is one of those opportunities to solve a big problem.”

The majority of youths probably will be court-ordered to the treatment center for 90-day stays, they said. The center can accommodate 15 boys and 10 girls at any one time, although it probably will start at a lower level, perhaps serving 10 teens at a time, according to Gil Vigil. It will serve an age range from 13 to 18.

“One of the beauties in this facility is that it will be culturally specific,” Herrera said. “We will be able to plug in adjunct skills to reflect traditional beliefs.”

Besides being served by staff who are Native Americans themselves, the center expects to draw on community members to come in to teach skills such as dancing and drum-making, or to have tribal leaders come in and talk with the residents. Talking circles will be featured, probably in a special rounded meditation room with high windows, vaguely reminiscent of a kiva.

HERRERA: Clinical director for Circle of Life

HERRERA: Clinical director for Circle of Life

E. VIGIL: This is an opportunity to solve a big problem

E. VIGIL: This is an opportunity to solve a big problem

“We want to help bring back the culture into their inner lives,” Elias Vigil said. “We find that with a lot of adults who are absorbed … in drinking and drugging, they’ve lost a lot of their cultural identity.

“… What works in New York City doesn’t work on the pueblo,” he added, calling the Circle of Life approach “holistic.”

Outpatient programs will follow youths after release and will include their families, the officials said.

Walking through the residents’ rooms and common areas, Herrera said the simplest thing has moved her to tears: hot showers. Many of the youths coming there won’t have hot water in their homes, where floors may be made of dirt, she said.

“I’m so happy for them. … They deserve to be warm and clean,” Herrera said. “They deserve to be loved.”

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