MAILED: May 26, 1998|
EAU CLAIRE -- Heidi Werner met people during her internship whom she suspects will influence her career and life for years to come.Not that unusual except that it's not her colleagues she's talking about but rather the residents of a Minneapolis homeless shelter that provides chronically inebriated American Indians with a safe place to live.
"As far as I know, it's the only facility of its kind in the country," said Werner, who will graduate from the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire this month with a bachelor's degree in American Indian Studies. "The shelter is for a segment of our population that social services was not able to treat."
Last summer, Werner spent about 24 hours a week at the Anishinabe Wakiagun Homeless Resident Shelter as part of an internship/capstone course experience. A year later, she continues to make about two trips a month to the shelter.
"I formed a lot of personal relationships with the people there; I consider many of them friends," Werner said. "I didn't feel comfortable just doing my internship and then leaving when I didn't need the hours any more. I formed a bond with these people and I'm not willing to give that up."
While at the shelter she helps out in the kitchen, serves food and plays games such as cribbage with the residents.
"But mostly I just socialize," Werner said. "I spend afternoons talking to people and just spending time with them. It's the most significant thing I've ever been exposed to in my life so far and I've grown a lot as a result. I've grown spiritually, emotionally, educationally, intellectually and in any other way you can think of."
While she looks forward to her visits to Anishinabe, Werner said they are emotionally and physically exhausting. "It's an up and down kind of thing," she said, noting that violence is not uncommon and anything can happen on any given day. "I need to rest before I go because I know I'm going to need a lot of energy."
Some of the residents of the shelter are there voluntarily because they have no where else to go. Most have been in and out of detoxification centers numerous times and have no friends or family to help them. Others are there because it provides them with the independence they were seeking in their lives.
By providing a warm and safe place for the residents to live, it is hoped that they will be able to make other changes in their lives - such as taking steps to manage the disease of alcoholism, Werner said. "Every human has a right to a roof, food and warmth," she said. "And when those things are stable, sometimes that's all they need to make other changes."
Werner is among the first graduates of UW-Eau Claire's American Indian studies major, which was created in 1996. A part of the degree requirement is a three-credit capstone course that combines fieldwork with a summary thesis type project.
While Werner has American Indian heritage on both sides of her family, she grew up in primarily Caucasian Elk Lake so Indian history was rarely discussed. The AIS major provided her the opportunity to learn more about American Indian history, treaties, art, literature and culture, she said.
"I would never have had the experience I did at Anishinabe without the AIS major," Werner said, noting that the first course she registered for at UW-Eau Claire was a course about American Indian history.
Werner said she plans to pursue a master's in social work and then find a position working with the homeless or desperately poor. Where she will do that work, she is not sure. Working on an Indian reservation is appealing but she worries that because she did not grow up on a reservation she might struggle there. Working in another country also is appealing, she said, adding that she will sort through the options until she decides what feels right for her.
"One of the things I'm really struggling with is the fact that I like that what I'm doing at Anishinabe is volunteer work," Werner said. "The actual workers there spend a lot of time behind desks and have less freedom to interact with the residents. I'm not sure if I want to make what I enjoy doing as a volunteer into a job. I know I want to be involved but I'm not sure how."
Janice B. Wisner
UW-Eau Claire News Bureau
Updated: May 27, 1998