Sometimes, all it takes is one person.
No matter the size of the idea or the intention, if their strength is mighty enough, if their heart is brave enough, and they really never give up, that individual is enough.
In this case, that one person is Cheryl Kary, and Cheryl is changing the world around her. To a more integrated, peaceful and united place to be.
A place where everyone belongs, and where that doesn’t feel forced.
It feels right.
Cheryl lives in Bismarck, North Dakota, and every day, her goal is simple: To empower the American Indian population to be as much a part of the community as they can. She’s making a difference today, but it wasn’t an easy start.
“I was taught from the time I was a little girl, my family always said — like they say to a lot of Native people — ‘Go get your education and then come back and help your people.’ And that’s what I did.
“I was asked to go back to my tribe and serve as the executive director of my tribe. I did that, but I got totally smashed like a bug.”
She saw where areas of improvement were needed and tried to create change in a political system, but they weren’t ready for her ideas. They weren’t ready to listen, so they insisted she step down.
“It was a real traumatic experience for me. My job ended abruptly, and I was in a bad place emotionally.”
Cheryl needed something new. She and a friend had always talked about starting a center in Bismarck that would help Native people. So she left her reservation for Bismarck and, in 2013, applied for a Bush Fellowship. She got it.
“It was one of the best experiences I’ve ever had.”
As part of the fellowship program, she completed an in-depth survey on the Native American population in Bismarck and Mandan, and she’s been able to use that information to help build the nonprofit organization she’s running today.
Her nonprofit is called the Sacred Pipe Resource Center, and she opened its doors to the Bismarck community in the spring of 2014.
“It’s been very scary trying to keep my little organization going, but it’s also the most exciting thing I’ve ever done.”
Sacred Pipe’s mission is to help create a community in the Bismarck-Mandan area that allows Native people to get better jobs and better access to housing and healthcare.
Cheryl is on her way, but not without the community’s efforts, too.
“For Native people in Bismarck, they don’t get involved unless it’s something they’re mad about or if they need justice,” she says. “But what I want to do is for us to be a part of the Bismarck community so things that make us angry don’t happen in the first place!
“It’s hard to create that energy, we’re not really there yet.”
She understands their reluctance.
“We are kind of a forgotten population,” Cheryl says. “People are so used to being isolated. They aren’t used to having community or a place to talk about ideas and really think about what their vision is.
“But we are picking up steam.”
Nonprofit broken down into three teams
With the help of a couple grants — including one from the North Dakota Humanities Council — the Sacred Pipe Resource Center developed what Cheryl calls Community Engagement Teams: three groups that focus on specific issues that need help and attention.
“We have a high over-representation of youth in foster care and the juvenile justice system in North Dakota, so the Youth Issues team talks about services we need to develop to keep our kids out of the systems.”
Another team focuses on health issues. “They are discussing the possibility of a community health center that would serve Native Americans and the under-served population.”
And the final team focuses on integrated cultural events. “Bismarck is kind of polarized in that there are Native events, and then there are non-Native events, so this engagement team is really thinking about, ‘We’re in this community together! We are not separate from one another. Let’s see how we can get along and make the community better for everybody who’s living here.’ ”
Having these Engagement Teams at work is a huge step for Cheryl, and she plans to focus a lot on their progress during the Builder program, but she has other plans, too. She already invites speakers in and hosts meetings to discuss relevant community topics, but she also has her sights set on a physical space to congregate. Someday.
“Ideally, we’d love to have a separate space where we can have classes for job seekers, conferences, meetings, social services, tutoring sessions for kids, after-school activities.” She could go on. “But right now, we’re just trying to grow it. My philosophy is just to start really slow. Start small, and grow in it.”
She’s patient, because she knows she has to be. But if we practice patience, too, we’ll see her work come full circle.
‘I want this to inspire somebody’
The Builders Program is just the energy Cheryl needs to move forward this year.
“I’m excited to be around people who are thinkers and doers that want to change the world,” she says. “The people who are ready to go after the windmills, that’s what is exciting for me. I get energized from that.”
Cheryl says she’s at a tipping point. “This could work, but if I don’t nurture it and manage it well, it could fall apart!”
So every day, she takes a deep breath and she considers what she can accomplish. Instead of letting the hard work go, she just keeps moving forward instead and seeks ideas to revitalize the Native American community.
Cheryl also sees Sacred Pipe Resource Center as somewhat of a leadership development program, a way to motivate the Native people.
“I want to do something really different that’s going to call to someone and get them to be a leader — getting people to think about how they’d like to change the world.
“I want this to inspire somebody to find their action and purpose in life.”
Cheryl has such incredible work ethic. And not because someone is asking her to or telling her what to do — because she alone wants to see an alliance, so she alone will make it happen.
There will come a day where the significant Native American population in Bismarck will no longer feel a sense of isolation, but only integration. Togetherness. Peace.
And it will be because of her diligence.
It will be because Cheryl never gave up.