Southern California American Indian Resource Center celebrates 20 years

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In 1996, at the kitchen table with his seven kids, William Johnson envisioned a place for Native Americans like himself where families could have the resources they need. 

As a strong father with a natural love for children, he wanted to invest in the community and create a kids program in Alpine. He named the space the Southern California American Indian Resource Center (SCAIR). The organization spent 13 years in Alpine.

In 1996, at the kitchen table with his seven kids, William Johnson envisioned a place for Native Americans like himself where families could have the resources they need. 

As a strong father with a natural love for children, he wanted to invest in the community and create a kids program in Alpine. He named the space the Southern California American Indian Resource Center (SCAIR). The organization spent 13 years in Alpine.

Today the programs have expanded to include career training, counseling and teaching programs for adults, children and families alike in its new home in El Cajon (the center moved four years ago). Her father was Comanche and the new storefront was a family project. 

Though Johnson died in 2007, his vision lives on in his children’s efforts, that of Wanda Michaelis, SCAIR’s executive director, and her brother who chairs the nonprofit organization’s board, William Johnson II. 

“I feel like most people feel like they’ve found a home here where they can be safe, practice culture, be able to make mistakes and feel supported altogether,” Michaelis said. 

At SCAIR’s Open House June 28, almost 40 staff and community members gathered to celebrate 20 years.

“It’s a very sweet thing for me because it was my dad’s vision of what would happen and I’m just really honored to be able to see his vision go on and see how many people that we’ve helped,” Michaelis said. “It’s heart-warming for me; it really is a labor of love.”

Frank Pancucci, program coordinator and workforce developer at SCAIR, said SCAIR serves a few hundred people any given year in their varying programs. 

In 2007, the center became a Tribal Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) training provider. In 2014, they were awarded the Workforce Innovation and Opportunity Act grant through the Department of Labor. The center has a federal program, two state programs and a private contract as well as other smaller grants. 

The center also maintains partnerships with the University of San Diego and San Diego State to get masters-level counseling interns to assist with those services and the community for information and job training. SCAIR’s 2014 Native Networks program has helped 40 to 60 individuals get work in its first couple years.

“There’s still so much disparity in terms of the needs of the native community and the ways that the native community has been serviced,” Pancucci said. “I think that the Native community is starting to pick up traction in terms of visibility and in terms of there being more identification of what the needs are… The workforce here in San Diego is growing and I think that’s an exciting opportunity for us too to provide training for careers that are really needed here in San Diego.”

Umoja Richardson, SCAIR’s administrative coordinator and a tribal member of the Viejas band of Kumeyaay Indians, realized she needed SCAIR first as a client, when she couldn’t figure out how to upload a resume. The center helped her with her job anxieties and gave her the computer skills she needed. She’s worked for the center a year now.

“I hope that I serve as an example to the different clients and everything because I think there are people that are working on certifications that I, myself, haven’t even obtained,” Richardson said. “I hope that I serve as an example that they feel that they’re more than capable and qualified to enter into the workforce.”

Randy Edmonds, a community advisor for the center and a member of the Kiowa/Caddo tribe of Oklahoma, has been involved in this center 10 years but has spent over 40 years advocating for American Indians. 

Edmonds now acts as a spiritual advisor, doing prayers and spiritual blessings and providing advice on organization, economics and education. 

He said cultural and community events bring American Indians together to survey their accomplishments and teach the younger generation to remember where they came from and who they are.

“As Indian people, we have to incorporate into our lives the white society because that’s where we live now and that’s the language we speak. That’s the culture that we’re involved in,” he said. “All of that is necessary but we still have to retain our rich culture which includes tradition, language and spirituality, songs and dances, and continue to do that because we are Natives of this country.”

Kathy Willicuts, Sacred Pipe cultural educator at SCAIR, said that it could be difficult to teach culture to young people because of school and extracurricular activities. Even older people can be discouraged from wearing jewelry indicative of their background while at work, she said. 

“It can be confusing, so that’s what we’re doing, trying to blend it [work and culture into their lifestyles] somehow,” Willicuts said.

Reyna Reynosa, a Navajo, Apache and Aztec Indian who lives in La Mesa, has been working at the center for a month as part of the Sacred Pipe Tobacco-Use Prevention Education (TUPE) program. Her family utilized the counseling and tutoring services. 

She hopes the center can expand to provide more native youth activities, a childcare program, extended hours and transportation in the future.

“I’m a single parent so the big projects they would help my boys with took a lot of weight off my shoulders,” she said. “I’m really grateful for the services they offer here. It did honestly change my life and in a positive way.”

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