Lillian Vallely School’s Own Ray of Hope

One would not think of a man with a Scottish heritage and raised in a Scottish community in Virginia Dale, Colorado as being someone with a passion for Native American culture. But such is very much the case with Ray Boyd, former Head of School and Chaplain at Lillian Vallely School and, still today, a very active member of the school community.

Ray has been a teacher for over 50 years and travelled a good portion of the country doing so. After graduating from Colorado State University with a degree in botany, Ray first went to teach on the Navajo reservation in New Mexico; then to the Navajo reservation in Arizona where he was first a teacher and then an administrator of eight hundred students in grades 5-8. After five years or so there, he knew enough of the Navajo language that he didn’t require an interpreter.

Ever the migrant, Ray returned to Fort Collins, the town of his alma mater, to teach Mexican-American children in elementary school. Soon after, he took a break from teaching and moved to Kalispell, Montana to pursue what he thought was his real calling—tuning pianos! Although that stint lasted only a year, it remained an avocation of his for twenty-seven years!

After earning a master’s degree at Idaho State University and taking a few other administrative tours at Blackfoot Elementary and in the state of Nevada, Ray was named principal at Fort Hall Elementary in 1997 following the tragic death of its beloved principal in a car accident. In fact, officials decided to close all the district’s schools for the day to enable teachers and students to pay their last respects on the day of the funeral.

“It was a very trying time for the entire school community,” Ray admits. “In fact, I spent more time counseling the counselors that I did anything else. I just let them talk, even if it meant leaving the school late at night.”

By now, one should have the measure of the man who had worn many hats, adapted to many cultures, and simply loves to teach.

“I was putting together the church bulletin at my church, Emanuel Lutheran in Blackfoot [Idaho], when I ran across a notice that Lillian Vallely School was looking for a volunteer tutor,” Ray explained. He was instantly accepted in August 2006. By January 2007, Ray was named Lillian Vallely’s Head of School. He’s been connected—one way or another—with the school ever since.

As for fond memories at LVS, Ray was asked if any one student stuck out in his mind as someone who had those “most likely to succeed” qualities. He lit up at the opportunity to brag about a fifth-grader we’ll call ‘Jim,’ who often shadowed his principal and found ways to stay engaged with him. Ray applied this famous quote about education to Jim: My teacher thought I was smarter than I was. So I was.

“Being the only male teacher in school, I did a lot of things with Jim,“ explained Ray. “I was someone who believed in him and, perhaps, that gave him the ability to rise up himself.” What the mentor described as Jim’s skills at “fancy dancing” also contributed to the student’s blossoming.

I asked where Jim was today. Ray didn’t exactly know but did the math in his head and guessed he must be a junior or senior in high school. After a recent Lillian Vallely pow wow, green beans were served for lunch. This vegetable immediately reminded Ray of his mentee, who apparently devoured the vegetable while a LVS student. Funny what can spark a person’s memory.

Ray left his position as Head of School in 2011, but stayed on as Chaplain a few more years and now devotes his time to grant writing and mentoring the school’s new principal, Lee Griffin. He also serves on the LVS Board. Despite his A+ reputation as an administrator, Ray faults himself for not taking the school into the technology realm fast enough. The school has since reached that goal. And, thankfully, in the proper context, meaning not as a baby sitter or as a disciplinary tool.

Now, moving forward, he’d like to see the school’s curricula remain aligned with Idaho state standards. It’s a tough task when a school like LVS doesn’t always have the latest resources to meet the needs of the individual student.

“If you keep cooking in the same pot, you’re going to get the same stew!” Ray exclaims. “Something gives every day because of the lack of resources.”

But teaching is an inexact science. Students at LVS are there to learn much more than a standard curriculum. “Yes, we do test students at the beginning and end of each school year, as required by the state, and we expect to see improvements in their scores,” Ray admitted. “But I’d just as soon see our students’ self-esteem grow as I would their scores.”

Lillian Vallely School is truly unique; it provides a safe place for a group of children to feel good about themselves and loved by a big family of adults. When they leave LVS after fifth grade, they are able to function better wherever they next find themselves. Ray adds, “education in the pure sense will come because the students are freed up from worrying about anything else.”

When asked how he might pitch a philanthropist like Bill Gates for funding, Ray replied, “We’re a private school and don’t need anyone’s permission to teach about culture and faith. But we are at a competitive disadvantage in terms of pay and benefits; we draw mainly from a pool of retired teachers [and those two are leaving in 2016] or newly-minted college graduates.”

“Tell Bill Gates,” offers Ray, with an ounce of hope, “we continually struggle to find money for staff, and that’s what we need more of.”

Pure Fantasy

Today is Sunday, the final day of Week 23—what will conclude, hands down, as my worst week—in the 2015 fantasy baseball season. It may be labeled as fantasy, but the impact of this disastrous week is very real indeed.

Come tomorrow, there will be three weeks left to play in the 2015 Idaho Power Rookie League, a group of eleven grown men and one woman, playing fantasy baseball on the CBS Sports platform. As someone dropping faster than a real baseball team, the Washington Nationals, in the standings this week, I’m getting very anxious.

Each participant in the IPCO Rookie League “owns” a unique team of twenty-six real MLB players. Well, actually, we own the stats of these players over the course of the 2015 season. Ten of the twelve “owners” work or have worked for Idaho Power; hence the league name. We are just a small dot on the proverbial fantasy map.

It’s estimated by the Fantasy Sports Trade Association that forty-one million people age twelve and above in the U.S. and Canada played fantasy sports in 2014. That’s all sports—well more than half play fantasy football—still leaving several million baseball zealots like me. I’ve been playing since two thousand and something when I joined a league started by a former Time Inc. colleague, Dan Okrent. The legendary Mr. Okrent is frequently credited as the inventor of Rotisserie League Baseball, the best-known format of fantasy baseball, in 1979. That’s not the format the twelve of us play today in Idaho; our format is known as head-to-head. It’s much too detailed to try and explain in a primer like this. Perhaps the reader will just accept that fantasies can be both technical and erotic.

Simply put, being an owner of a fantasy baseball team is like being, simultaneously, a general manager and a field manager of a real MLB team. Well, sort of. We don’t have to report to any owner; we don’t do press interviews; we don’t suck on sunflower seeds and spit them out in a dugout; we don’t get inside the ropes at spring training; and, in our format, there is no salary cap, so we can spend (yes, there is real money involved) like a Steinbrenner if we want to.

I hasten to add that real money to most of us fantasy types means hundreds of dollars—at the most—not hundreds of millions of dollars. Yet, my team name, Money Can’t Buy You Bobbleheads, fits both my spending habits, relatively speaking, and my own history of never winning the top prize, a bobblehead trophy modeled after a fictional baseball player caricature. It’s been elusive since I joined the IPCO Rookie League in 2011 and, barring some major collapse by the New Jersey Big Tomatoes, it will remain so.

Why, then, do I spend hours every week watching games, scouting players I might want to add to my humble team, analyzing pitcher versus hitter matchup stats and exposure my wife, Lisa, to most of it? After all, there are plenty of alternatives.

It’s a fun hobby! I remind myself. As such, I spend what I consider to be an appropriate amount of time on it. Most of my other hobbies, like solving Sudoku puzzles, volunteering, and writing blog posts like one this just don’t get the competitive juices flowing like fantasy baseball. When a real player does well, I, their fantasy owner, also do well. Two home runs by one of my batters in a game? Awesome! A shutout—or better yet, a no-hitter—by one of my pitchers? Pure envy, from all the other owners. Unless I happened to have benched that player for the week. Oops. That’s when I swear I’ll never play this game another year!

Tomorrow, only a handful of teams will head into Week 24 with some sort of mathematical chance to win the bobblehead. It’s an odd time to be setting lineups; some readers may know that major league rosters have expanded and former minor league players are now in the mix. Lots of high risk, high reward gambles tempt those owners who are still chasing the Maters. I’m one of them. I have this kid, yes, a twenty-one year-old kid named Corey Seager, who is now playing lights-out for the Dodgers! The Los Angeles Dodgers. Get over it, Brooklynites; your team’s been gone nearly sixty years! Do I put this young, yet red-hot, rookie into my Week 24 lineup? Do I bench an All-Star veteran incumbent like Jose Reyes, a thirty-two year-old with a chip on his shoulder for having been traded recently to the Colorado Rockies? You bet I do. I’m desperate; I’m going with the kid.

Call me cynical, a sore loser. A late-in-the-night gambler. Barring an injury to one of my players today, I’m going all in tomorrow. My roster will be comprised of players with the highest upside and the lowest downside. I’m rolling the dice, baby. I can’t stand the thought of losing to a Tomato! Or being caught by a Dung Heap. If I want to remain mathematically alive in the race for the bobblehead, I’ve got to beat both of my opponents—the out-of-contention Wilde Thing and Birds—in Week 24.

And it’s beginning to slowly sink in: that likelihood, as well as going on to win my first-ever bobblehead trophy, is pure fantasy.

Meet Joe Marshall, Board President of the Lillian Vallely School in Blackfoot, Idaho

This is the first in a series of articles introducing you to
the leaders of this special Episcopal elementary day school.

Retired? This seventy-eight year old is not even close. Like many other successful men and women, Joseph W. Marshall has transitioned from a successful corporate career with Idaho Power—he retired as CEO and Chairman in 1999—into volunteer management positions across the Treasure Valley of Idaho and beyond. He serves organizations in need of leadership, vision, and financial resources, and one of them is the Lillian Vallely School.

Joe W. Marshall

Soon after “retiring,” Joe became reacquainted with a dear friend, LVS co-founder, John Thornton. By then, Thornton had retired as Bishop of the Episcopal Diocese of Idaho, and he invited Marshall to serve on the LVS Board.

Marshall was not a complete stranger to the Native American culture in Idaho, as his business dealings included the negotiation of transmission lines across the Fort Hall Reservation in eastern Idaho, where LVS students and their families live. He had also worked with the Nez Perce tribe on endangered salmon issues and served on the Idaho Governor’s Bicentennial Commemoration Committee of the Lewis and Clark Expedition.

Marshall has long been an admirer of the Native American culture and, in particular, the tribes residing in Idaho.

“They, along with their rich cultures, were swallowed up and deposited on reservations, and, in most incidents, far from their native lands,” Joe states. “You’ve got to have empathy for that.” He’s right. And he adds, “Corralling Native Americans onto reservations and expecting them to adapt to such change in a few years was very unrealistic.”

Why does Marshall believe so passionately about the Lillian Vallely School?

“We have a moral obligation to give these children on the Fort Hall Reservation opportunities,” he says with both pride and a tinge of white guilt. ”Native Americans have made a major contribution to this country, and we want our young students to understand, embrace and take loving pride in their Native culture.”

To that end, the school staff has always included a Native American (Shoshone) culture teacher in addition to its classroom teachers. Marshall explains why. “We think it is very important that our children be well prepared after graduating from LVS to grow into young adults being proud of themselves and proud of their rich culture. No matter where they choose to go afterwards, be it on or off the reservation, they can accomplish much.”

Lillian Vallely died weeks before her eponymous school opened in 1998. She had a wish—which she communicated to the school founders—that the school children receive a quality education, experience their culture, and learn that there is a God and that God loves them as individuals. For this reason, LVS operates today as an Episcopal school. Or some might say as an Episcopal mission, a nonprofit entity receiving modest financial support from a number of private as well as public institutions in the form of grants and gifts—many from Episcopal churches.

The school currently has no endowment, and the $300,000 or so that it takes to operate the school ever year comes from, more or less, the same pool of grants and individual donations. With the Thorntons at the helm, that model has continued to work year after year. But they are now both in their eighties and Marshall has also exceeded the U.S. male life expectancy.

Marshall, the board president for the past six years, is committed in every way to the school and its future. “We have a chance to affect the lives of children—part of a culture living right in our midst—whose love of the land, the environment, animal life, and vegetation permeates their culture. If we can help prepare them to live good lives in both cultures, it will enrich all of all lives.”

Marshall is right. And we all share something in common: God’s love.

His wish, the ‘Marshall plan,’ is to create a Lillian Vallely Foundation to provide financially for the school in perpetuity. He thinks at least half of the annual operating income for the school should come from investment income controlled by the foundation. That’s a tall order, some $2.5 million in legacy and other gifts raised over say five years, but proven achievers like Marshall are the ones to get it going.

How will he confront all the challenges? Research Joe Marshall and one will discover a theme that guided him through his career at Idaho Power. It’s an engineer’s faith that logical minds at work together can surmount any problem.

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.

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.

apples 2
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.

My recent connection with @sharrisLaughter

By her own candid account, and laughing as she tells it, bonafide writer Shirley Harris-Slaughter did not consider herself such. Not initially. Her first book, “Our Lady of Victory: The Saga Of An African-American Catholic Community,” was published in 2007 and did launch well. In fact, Shirley told me the book was “coming off the shelves” of her diocese’s Catholic Book Store. Then sales quickly petered out.

Shirley Harris-Slaughter

Shirley was patient. After all, she’d thought of the book as a narrative history project, a way to document and honor the work done by some pioneering citizens in Detroit, Michigan, where she grew up. Yes, she did all of the social media stuff, blogging initially on a GoDaddy platform and Tweeting with the handle, @Motorcitywriter. She had garnered some 100 followers—not a large number—but, as she is quick to point out, they were real, not purchased!

Things had gotten stale, so to speak, and she was about to close her Twitter account. Then, out of nowhere, Shirley received a tweet from a stranger by the name of Nonnie Jules, a fellow writer.

“Nonnie thought my website was beautiful,” beamed Shirley in a recent conversation with me. “She hadn’t read the book at that point in time, but she gave me a lot of encouragement.” After meeting Nonnie, Shirley became revitalized—and part of a movement. She was now equal parts consumed with promoting her own book AND becoming an influencer to help fellow authors as well. Just like that, she became a Board Member of Nonnie’s Rave Reviews Book Club and her ticket as a writer got punched!

Credit Nonnie for a lot of that success. She bought and read Shirley’s book. She reviewed the book and called it a “homerun.” She took on Shirley as a client, helped republish the book under her own 4WillsPublishing imprint, relaunched it on Facebook and did a blog tour. Shirley adds, “She also did my wonderful book trailer. The more I hear it, the more I like it. I never got that much publicity and attention.”

The truth behind Shirley’s first book moved me to tears. I AM NOT CATHOLIC, but I know they have behaved badly for decades. She uncovered a lot of things the higher-ups and the powers-that-be in her church wanted kept out of the public eye. I’m sure it was hard for Shirley to expose the truth about a place that had provided many people like her with such transformative life experiences.

Shirley is an American with black skin whose parents saw an opportunity to help their eight children have a better life. Shirley recounts the catalytic story of a little boy walking each day from her neighborhood, Royal Oak Township—just north of Detroit—to Eight Mile Road, just inside the city limits. He was always adorned in a smart uniform on his way to Our Lady of Victory, a combination Catholic parish church and school.

“My parents sacrificed us,” Shirley told me. At first, I thought she meant something quite sinister, like Abraham and Isaac. I probed further and discovered that for Shirley and her siblings to enroll at Our Lady of Victory, they jumped through hoops I simply can’t comprehend. Trust me when I tell you it was complicated. While technically affiliated with OLV as a second grader, Shirley was bused to inner city schools and didn’t make her official debut at OLV until the fourth grade.

School Days 1955 (2)
Young Shirley in 4th Grade

Such a sacrifice proved worthwhile introduced Shirley to some wonderful adult role models, a gift she both treasures and knows she’d never have gotten on the north side. The work done by the pioneers of Shirley’s new community was not everyone’s cup of tea, either. In compiling this narrative history, the author knew releasing it would be controversial.

Shirley chose her words carefully to reflect on some of the challenges she faced. “I had no idea a lot of people wouldn’t want to read it. The Archdiocese of Detroit specifically got their pre-order copy just to find out what I was writing. They did not go all out to support me, but neither did they hinder me because they couldn’t. Our Lady of Victory was merged and out of their jurisdiction. I found things out as the book was in various stages of being released. You find out who your true friends and enemies are. My story told truths that some were not prepared to face, let alone believe. Others were happy that I did this project. They were glad to see themselves immortalized.”

Shirley didn’t know it as a girl, but she later learned that she’d had a benefactor, a person who made it possible, financially, for her and six siblings to attend Our Lady of Victory. This “rich lady” was Martha Palms Williams, who owned what is now The Fillmore Detroit, a multi-use entertainment venue operated by Live Nation. Built in 1925, the Fillmore was known for most of its history as the State Theatre, and prior to that as the Palms Theatre.

Perhaps this is why Shirley considers herself today a community activist. “I like to work with children,” she says. “You can shape them when they’re young.” Shirley is part of a mentoring program and has made a positive impact on those she serves. Perhaps one day, one of those grateful mentees will send her a dozen roses as a “thank you,” just like Shirley did for Mrs. Willliams right before the good lady’s death.

I’m not writing a book review for Shirley’s first book, or even her second one, “Crazy! Hot! And Living On The Edge!!” published earlier this year and recounted her struggles with PTSD after an abusive first marriage. I encourage you to buy and read them yourselves. Witness the powerful stories about black and white co-existence and crippling illnesses within her family, that this powerful writer has been brave enough to tell.

Shirley Harris-Slaughter is an emotional person. She still chokes up talking about her severely retarded brother, how he knew he was being sent away from home to be be cared for, how he clung to his mother’s hand because he didn’t want to leave his family. How her family made this decision for the good of the whole family, to reduce the stress of caring for this brother that permeated their lives.

Yes, Shirley, it’s OK to be a “big baby.” For as often as you cry, you laugh. It’s your positive release. “Crazy! Hot! And Living On The Edge!!” is just a part of who you are. If it’s good enough for Langston, your husband for the past thirty years, it’s good enough for us.

Shirley and Langston

As the title of this blog suggests, you may connect with Shirley on Twitter with just the slightest twist in her name: @sharrisLaughter. Become one of her now 3,000+ followers!