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Red Lake Boys and Girls Club expands and thrives with Thomas Barrett at the helm

Two years ago, the Red Lake Boys and Girls Club was on a downward spiral, with membership declining and grant money dwindling. Then, Thomas Barrett landed what he called his "ideal career," as CEO of the club. And together, both Barrett and the club have flourished, with club attendance doubling, Ojibwe cultural programming increasing and grant money on the upswing -- all after the club was in potential danger of shutting down.

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Club members decorate suncatchers in the art room on Monday, June 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Boys and Girls Club. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)
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RED LAKE -- Two years ago, the Red Lake Boys and Girls Club was on a downward spiral, with membership declining and grant money dwindling.

Then, Thomas Barrett landed what he called his "ideal career," as CEO of the club.

And together, both Barrett and the club have flourished, with club attendance doubling, Ojibwe cultural programming increasing and grant money on the upswing -- all after the club was in potential danger of shutting down.

Lining up with the two-year anniversary of Barrett’s hire, the Pioneer recently stopped by the Red Lake club for a visit to see the club in action.

Walking through the club doors, one may be greeted by the sound of basketballs bouncing, children laughing and drums beating, as well as the colorful sights of art projects adorning the walls, club members playing arcade games and working on STEM projects.

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Jerritte Caldwell Jr., Keith Caldwell, Josh Antone, Mike Barrett and Brendan Strong sing around a drum during a cultural programming event in the gym Monday afternoon on June 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Boys and Girls Club. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

The Boys and Girls Club has been a fixture in Red Lake since 2006. There are two club locations -- one in Red Lake near the Red Lake Powwow Grounds and humanities building, and one in Ponemah.

According to the Red Lake Nation website, “The club provides a safe environment for youth to go to during out-of-school hours and beyond. We provide structured programs for youth to engage in healthy activities and life choices.”

Destined to work with youth

Barret said a majority of his jobs since his teenage years have involved working with youth, and he feels it has always been his calling.

“My original plan was to be a teacher,” he said. “I have a degree in social studies with a minor in digital studies. I was a paraprofessional at Bemidji High School for a year, and I've had different odd jobs around Red Lake working with the youth.”

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Red Lake Boys and Girls Club CEO Thomas Barrett stands in front of the entrance to the Red Lake club building on Monday, June 28, 2021. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

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After graduating from Red Lake High in 2007 he went on to receive an associate’s degree from Bemidji State. He played college basketball at Fergus Falls Community College and at the University of Minnesota-Morris, before graduating with a bachelor’s degree from BSU in 2016.

Barrett is also a survivor of the Red Lake High School shooting that took place on March 21, 2005. In his past, he has dealt with addiction, which he overcame through his music and support from family and community. Barrett performs hip-hop and rap under the stage name Thomas X, an art form he’s shared with the Boys and Girls Club members during his time as director.

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He said some of the work that he’s been most proud of in Red Lake hasn’t been for any sort of professional role. He and his friends have hosted numerous community grassroots events for youth, like skateboarding and basketball competitions.

“Doing those grassroots movements, having jobs with the youth most of my life, that kind of led me down the path to eventually become CEO of this place, which, to be honest, was my ideal career,” he said.

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Rhoze McClain, Lyrraena McClain, Erin Lussier, Thomas Barrett and Liz Barrett walk laps around the gym Monday afternoon on June 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Boys and Girls Club. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Saving the club

When Barrett took the reins in 2019, he said the club was in danger as past leadership had let grant fulfillment fall through the cracks and membership was down.

At the time, the club had five grants, which they were in jeopardy of losing because they were years behind on reporting.

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“There was no communication between the last director and the grant managers on the other end,” Barrett explained. “I came in with my plate full. (I was told), ‘You’ve got to save all the grants because that's 60% of our funding. Attendance numbers are low, you're not running any real programs.’ Basically, we had to kickstart everything.”

The biggest grant at stake was a 21st Century Grant through the Minnesota Department of Education, totaling $389,000 annually -- roughly half of the club’s annual funding.

According to the Minnesota Department of Education , the purpose of the grant is to establish or expand community learning centers that provide students with enrichment opportunities during periods when school is not in session. These federal funds are awarded through a competitive peer-review process that prioritizes programs serving students in high-poverty, low-performing schools.

“After a few months of getting caught up on reporting, we increased our attendance dramatically and got real programs going again. The head honchos from (the Department of Education) came to pay us a visit, to let us know in person our group of people here saved the grant, and we were able to keep those dollars,” he said.

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Club members and staff stand for a photo in front of a mural painted on the gym wall Monday afternoon on June 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Boys and Girls Club. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Rescuing that grant kept it in place for another year and a half. Barrett reapplied last summer to continue it for another three years and was awarded a total of $1.17 million dollars.

The driving case for these grant awards is the surge of new club members.

In February 2019, before Barrett’s time, the club had around 600 kids participating throughout the month. In February 2020, the club pulled in more than 1,400 kids.

“Before COVID, we were having 100 kids show up (in Red Lake), and another 70-80 show up at our Ponemah club daily, which were numbers that were never happening before,” he continued. “That was awesome for me to know that the kids wanted to come here. This is the most active youth program in the tribe, and we want to be able to serve as many kids as possible.”

The influx of club members also meant the club needed more people on staff.

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“I was able to pull more funds from the tribe, because I pitched them, 'Hey, we got kids coming in, things are more successful, I'd like more dollars to hire more staff.’ We started out with 12 staff between here and Ponemah when I started, and now we’re up to 19.”

Weathering the pandemic

Things were going well for the growing club and its new director, and then COVID-19 happened.

When the pandemic hit the club came to a screeching halt -- as most everything else did in March 2020. In April, the club began distributing meals, hoping to cover a gap where it could. During this time, schools were providing breakfast and lunch for families, so the club stepped up to provide dinner.

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Mira Schoenborn applies glitter glue to a project in the art room Monday afternoon on June 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Boys and Girls Club. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

At the peak, staff was serving to-go meals to around 100 kids at the Red Lake club and another 70 or so in Ponemah daily, Barrett estimated.

Virtual programming soon took the place of an in-person club, with Ojibwe language tables, science experiments, exercises and more being led online.

“We sent home activity packets with kids. After a month of meal distribution, we started doing a virtual approach for our staff to be able to get on Zoom or Facebook Live, and try to do the same programming we would do here, but virtually -- physical activities, art contests -- connecting with the kids that way,” he said.

Now that the club is fully open again, other than masks being worn inside, things are pretty much back to normal.

On a typical day, the first hour after students arrive is known by club members as the “power hour” when club members are expected to work on educational worksheets. Doing enough worksheets can earn club members prizes like basketballs, blankets or tablets.

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Boys and Girls Club members work on a poster in the art room on Monday, June 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Boys and Girls Club. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Then club members are free to take part in cultural activities, arts and crafts, games, STEM activities or open gym time, followed by an evening meal.

History of the club

“They started the Boys and Girls Club programming in 2006, (a year) after the shooting happened. We received grant dollars and the tribe put forth some money to have after-school programming. But it was based at the (Red Lake Secondary Complex),” Barrett explained. “I was a sophomore when the shooting happened, and then in my junior year, I started doing Boys and Girls Club programming.”

Barrett said while the offerings were bare bones in the beginning, they were appreciated.

“(At the time), it was mostly open gym basketball and they'd feed us a snack and they had board games and stuff. Real basic, as much as they could provide,” he said. “But it was cool for us because at that time, there weren't any open gyms. We had to specifically play basketball outside at the outdoor courts. To have an open gym during the spring and summer and fall time, it was awesome.”

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Karli Kingbird, Indi Kingbird, Khloe Kingbird, Lasadie Defoe and Sinda Defoe make their way around the gym during a cultural activity on Monday afternoon on June 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Boys and Girls Club. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

A building was completed to house the club in 2008. Since then, the programming has substantially increased and diversified.

“Obviously, I wanted to make this place fun and exciting for the kids to come here. We started by kick-starting our club initiatives, like physical education programs, educational, STEM and arts programs that are provided by the Boys and Girls Clubs of America,” he said.

Cultural connection

Coming into his role, one of Barrett’s main goals was to strengthen the club’s cultural programming, getting the club members excited about Ojibwe language, history and traditions.

“Our culture is our identity and it’s very important to learn at a young age,” he said. “I'm a firm believer in teaching the youth as much as possible about our Anishinaabe culture.”

Tuesdays are specifically dedicated for cultural programming, Barrett explained, noting that in the gym there might be lacrosse or moccasin games, drums and dance class, along with Anishinaabe-themed art or STEM projects.

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While club members walk in a circle around her, Shia Donnell dances during a drum and dance session in the gym Monday afternoon on June 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Boys and Girls Club. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Beyond day-to-day incorporation, the club has embraced a number of different longer-term projects relating to culture.

For example, last year there was a successful language initiative. Club members were incentivized with prizes to participate in 10 Ojibwe language classes to learn how to introduce themselves in Ojibwemowin -- saying “hello,” where they are from, their name and their clan -- and more than 40 participated.

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Now, another project is underway to create a children’s book. Contemporary Ojibwe artist John Thunder worked with students on illustrations, and club art director Liz Barrett worked with them on short stories.

“The stories represent the Seven Grandfather Teachings. From that project, birthed a children's book that’s going to be published in the near future,” Barrett explained.

Culture is also intertwined in other aspects of programming. For example, club members interested in audio and video production recently helped film the Red Lake Independence Day Powwow with drones.

Barrett said this increase in cultural programming has been embraced by the club members, both the students already experienced and the ones entirely new to the idea.

“We have kids who already dance, already sing, already know the ways of our medicine, about sage and tobacco. They were coming here because the teachers that they learned from were now doing it from the Boys and Girls Club. Those kids definitely stuck with it,” he explained. “But then we would have the kids who wanted to try it who were never really exposed to Ojibwe culture.”

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Jasinda Kingbird dances during a drum and dance session in the gym Monday afternoon on June 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Boys and Girls Club. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

“To see shy kids sit down at the drum and try to learn a song and see kids even just walking in the circle when we have drum and dance class. To sit and learn the ways of making a ribbon skirt, or playing the moccasin game -- It's amazing. We look at it like we're re-Indigenizing kids, to be a hub where they learn about their culture.”

Continuing momentum

Looking ahead, Barrett has high hopes for the club. To begin with, there are some infrastructure goals -- to increase activities and equipment and to update and improve the buildings in Red Lake and Ponemah.

He hopes to develop more training for staff and keep increasing the club enrollment.

“We'd like to do more traveling with the kids, especially with our drum and dance group, bringing them up to different places to show people their talents and our culture,” he said. “I would like to see our cultural programs continue to thrive.”

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Indaanis Kingbird uses the computer in the STEM room Monday afternoon on June 28, 2021, at the Red Lake Boys and Girls Club. (Hannah Olson / Bemidji Pioneer)

Barrett said the club is always looking for more members and more adult community volunteers. Donations to the programs can also be made via GiveMN or Red Lake Tribal Employees can opt to make a payroll deduction.

Hannah Olson is a multimedia reporter for the Pioneer covering education, Indigenous-centric stories and features.
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