Parade arbor

Lodge Grass residents gather for a prayer after a parade through town last month. The event was organized after a triple homicide in the town on the Crow Reservation.  

LARRY MAYER, Gazette Staff

Lodge Grass is one of six communities in the nation to receive a grant from the “Raising Places” program, a project funded by the Robert Wood Johnson Foundation that aims to improve the well-being of children in low-income communities.

More than 150 nonprofit organizations from across the country applied for the grant, according to the Chicago-based Greater Good Studio, which last week announced its selection of Bighorn Valley Health Center to oversee the grant program in Lodge Grass. The grant is focused on communities with “social, economic and/or physical challenges that negatively impact children," according to the organization’s request for proposals.

With the notably young population (43 percent of Lodge Grass residents are younger than 20 years old, according to the 2010 Census), high unemployment rate and lack of opportunities for youth, the small town on the Crow Reservation was an ideal fit, said Megkian Doyle, a retention specialist at Montana State University and former Lodge Grass resident who authored the grant proposal.

The $60,000 grant will fund community planning activities for the next nine months and will allow her and the rest of the 12-person team identify and develop potential solutions to move the impoverished community forward, rather than simply focusing on the negatives.

“We really see ourselves as this team that’s able to come up underneath people that still have dreams, that still have hopes,” she said. “Our job is to say, ‘There is a way to do this, because there has to be a way.’”

As with many other reservation towns, Lodge Grass has struggled under high rates of drug addiction and declining levels of employment. The town’s high school has been ranked as one of the worst in the United States, and 68 percent of its residents live below the poverty line, according to the grant application.

Doyle echoed what many in Lodge Grass have said in recent months — that much of the town's plight owes to a breakdown of families and a lack of activities to keep children engaged in their community.

The grant program will focus on gathering ideas from members of the community to improve the living situation for Lodge Grass’s children, while also working to rebuild their relationships with their parents.

During the next six weeks, the team plans to interview at least 60 residents of the community to kick off a planning process to transform the town into one strengthened by its culture and historic identity as the “Valley of the Chiefs.”

“This grant is catalyzing the movement that’s already taking place in communities,” said Casaja Fritzler, a Lodge Grass resident who is also on the grant team. “We’re not coming in and saying what we want to do, we’re actually going out into the community … The whole point of this planning grant is to have a safe place for children to thrive and for families to thrive.”

The process for the planning grant is relatively open-ended, and the ideas developed over the next nine months will be a result of multiple meetings within the community, a “design process” overseen by the Greater Good Studio and a series of labs to refine those ideas into programs to move Lodge Grass forward.

Lodge Grass was the only reservation community selected for one of the six Raising Places grants. Both Doyle and Fritzler see it as an opportunity to strengthen the tribal identity they say has been lost to many residents over the years.

“I think a lot of it has to do with historical trauma, and people say that was a long time ago, but it has a domino effect from one generation to another," Fritzler said. "We come to this generation and it’s just like, wow, this is the aftermath of some of that stuff.”

Next month, a two-day lab at the end of the ongoing research period will prioritize areas of focus for the life of the grant program, followed by an additional lab and a period in which the team will plan to implement its new programs.

"We all said, whether we get this grant or not, it has kicked us into motion and we need to continue moving forward," Doyle said.

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Morning Reporter

General assignment reporter for the Billings Gazette.