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Leech Lake Tribal College Wellness Center connects with students

Patti Jones, a second-year indigenous leadership student at Leech Lake Tribal College, stands in its new Wellness Center as she discusses the college’s decision to go commercial-tobacco-free beginning in fall 2014. Monte Draper | Bemidji Pioneer

CASS LAKE — A hallway tucked into the back of Leech Lake Tribal College’s Cedar Hall has shelves full of diapers, baby products and personal care items.

There also is a rack with suit coats, women’s dress clothes, shoes and children’s winter coats.

Then, at the end of the hallway, is Dawn Plumer’s office.

“I just leave the door open, and just let the students decide,” said Plumer, director of LLTC’s Wellness Center. “If they want to come talk to me, great, if they don’t want to come talk to me, that’s fine too. No pressure.”

The Wellness Center, which opened in August 2012, offers services ranging from parenting classes to counseling to weekly talking circles with elders. There also are Wednesday night parent study groups, with child care provided by the college’s early-childhood education students, a running group, and 10-weeklong Baby Connections course for parenting students.

There is coffee and snacks, and an open invitation for any student to simply stop by or ask for guidance.

“We’re more of a resource, (offering) programming,” Plumer said. “I work with all of the tribal health departments on Leech Lake and in Bemidji too (for any needed referrals).”

Plumer said the Wellness Center started last fall after Beverly Rodgers, LLTC vice president, saw the need for expanded support serves and worked to obtain an initial grant. Plumer, who previously managed the college’s Diabetes Education in Tribal Schools program (DETS) became its director.

“My role in DETS was going out to conferences and giving out curriculum, but people would always come to me for health advice, just because it was the closest thing we had (to a campus nurse),” she said.

Initially, Plumer operated the Wellness Center out of a student services office.

“But I outgrew it very quickly,” she said.

Recently, the college was awarded $125,000 by the Northwest Area Foundation, in partnership with the American Indian College Fund.

Another grant is from ClearWay Minnesota in support of LLTC’s decision to go commercial-tobacco-free beginning in fall 2014.

Patti Jones, a second-year indigenous leadership student at LLTC, serves on the advisory board for that initiative. She herself quit smoking three years ago and said she often talks to other smokers encouraging them to quit.

“I’m 54 (years old). I quit at 51 years old. I smoked since I was 14 years old, a pack and a half a day,” she said. “If I can quit, you can quit.”

Plumer and Jones said a commercial-tobacco-free campus will be a big change for students and staff, but the Wellness Center plans to invite conversation as new policies are drafted and put in place.

“We’re going to have open forums and discussions and let them come and vent,” Plumer said. “We’ll listen.”

An emphasis is being placed on being “commercial-tobacco-free” as the campus still will encourage and support the use of tobacco in cultural ceremonies and activities.

“We’re going to focus more on education,” Plumer said. “We’re going to have events and guest speakers, to kind of talk about the traditional uses of tobacco.”

Jones said she thinks students will be more open to that approach.

“I think that’s better,” she said. “It’s been shoved down (smokers’) throats already, the bad things, what tobacco can do to your health.”

Blue Cross Blue Shield is also working with the Wellness Center to provide more options for staff as well.

“We know that for staff members, it’s their 15-minute break, to go out and smoke,” Plumer said. “We don’t want to take away that de-stressing time so we’re going to offer them (other options), a walking challenge, purchase a treadmill. We’re going to have staff-oriented lunch-and-learns … with healthful snacks.”

The Wellness Center, she said, is all about working to best meet students’ needs, focusing on young parents, who comprise roughly half of LLTC’s student population.

One program, for example, will provide students with laptops after they fulfill specific requirements, such as partaking in six campus events and maintaining good grades.

“It’s about getting involved in the college and making these connections,” Plumer said.