One very special school in Blackfoot, Idaho

The Lillian Vallely School, a fully accredited, Episcopal elementary day school, serves Native American children who live on the Fort Hall Reservation in eastern Idaho. The school was begun, in 1997, by then Episcopal Bishop John Thornton and his wife, Jan, at the request of a group of elders led by Lillian Vallely, a Shoshone woman and Episcopal Deacon. During many coffee hours at the Church of the Good Shepherd on the reservation, these elders dreamed of a special school where their grandchildren and great grandchildren might be given the tools to do better scholastically by having their own culture honored and academic excellence expected of them.

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John and Jan Thornton

In the spring of 1999, with a large grant from the Laura Moore Cunningham Foundation, Inc. of Boise and several other gifts, the founders were able to purchase a sixty-acre farm just off the reservation and move the school. They were blessed with eight different volunteer groups that summer. The first was a mission team from St. Luke’s Episcopal Church in Dallas, Texas. Sixteen energetic people tore down six old unusable farm buildings, made of heavy logs and timber slash. Seven other groups helped refurbish the old house to convert it to offices and dining room. They leveled the land, brought in rented portable classrooms, built a deck to join them and opened school on schedule in late August. Thirty children were accepted and a fifth grade was added.

LVS has since added a library wing onto the old house, built a beautiful playground, replaced the rented portable classrooms with two new classroom buildings, added new concrete parking spaces, driveways and walkways, built a fire suppressant system and constructed a new barn for the vehicles. Thanks to gifts from the Gladys E. Langroise Advised Fund in the Idaho Community Foundation, the Rev. Robert and Dr. Gina Parker, and others in 2011, LVS replaced the old farm house with a new administration building that includes offices, a dining room and a kitchen.

From the beginning, LVS has had small classes with lots of individual attention. In 2009, the school became a fully accredited private school. Students are taught their native culture including Shoshone language, dance, crafts and Indian flute. A principal, a business manager, two classroom teachers with Idaho teaching credentials, two grant writers, a director of Shoshone language and culture, a teacher of the Godly Play curriculum, two aides, a custodian, and two van drivers comprise the staff at the school. Visiting chaplains—episcopal priests and deacons—from the Episcopal Diocese of Idaho come to the school each month.

The students receive frequent invitations to dance and play their flutes in various venues including performances for their peers in other schools. They have performed for the College of Southern Idaho, for a Smithsonian History of Music event and for a large convention in Denver. All of this is confidence building—and creates prideful moments—for the students.

LVS teaches the Christian faith in the Episcopal tradition, another request of the elders. It is believed that if they know they are God’s beloved, are proud of their heritage and are given lots of individual attention, they will do well in all subjects. Students are taken to events in the majority culture. Science professors from Idaho State University in Pocatello come regularly to the school to teach classes with experiments in physics and chemistry. They also take field trips that include regular art classes at the art museum in Idaho Falls. It is important that they be comfortable in both cultures, to excel academically and to have the skills to attend any college or university in America if they wish.

LVS does not charge tuition, because most families would not be able to afford it. The families help with time and talent as they are able. Except for an eGrant, the Government School Lunch Program, and some Title 1 funds, the school does not receive government help. All of the funding for the school is raised from the private sector through foundation and corporation grants, fund-raising events and tax-deductible gifts from many generous individuals. It costs more than $20,000 each month to operate the school, so LVS is very thankful for all of this support.

This Sunday, August 30, the Thorntons are offering bushels of apples and pears from their farm in Scio, Oregon, to worshipers at Saint Michael’s Episcopal Cathedral in Boise, Idaho. It’s an annual event, a way to share the continued bounty of their orchards. Julie Thompson, a Cathedral member, flew to Portand and drove to the farm to pick fruit. Tim Loge, also from St. Michael’s, drove 500 miles each way to help pick and then transport the harvest to Boise and unload it at SunRay Cafe in the city’s North End. Dave Martin, the cafe owner and fellow parishioner, is providing cold storage of the fruit until Sunday.

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Sunday’s “point of sale” poster

Those receiving these gifts from the Thorntons will give something back, a donation to the school. There’s no price on the fruit, because it is indeed priceless. But every year, it’s been a beautiful “taketh and giveth” event, with everyone exceedingly generous and completely satisfied. This year, like past year, I expect that every piece of fruit will find a home. Just the way that thirty young students living on the Fort Hall Reservation have found academic, cultural and faithful comfort at the Lillian Vallely School.

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