Aunties launch nonprofit

Kyle Phillips / The Transcript

Sydney McCord picks out a piece of candy Sunday during The Auntie Project's #4theKIDS Family Festival at Main Street Event Center, 300 E Main St. in Downtown Norman.

A group of area Native American women raised more than $10,000 in the past month to help feed migrant children at the U.S-Mexico border.

The multi-generational group of 13 women, representing 16 tribes, formed the non-profit group The Auntie Project: Native Women of Service. They range in age from 34 to 85.

Group member Amanda Cobb-Greetham of the Chickasaw Nation, said the women came together with a lone goal of helping Native American and indigenous children in need. Cobb-Greetham is also professor and chairwoman of the University of Oklahoma's Department of Native American Studies.

The Aunties started meeting in June, launched fundraising on its website Aug. 12 and raised $13,226 as of Sunday, she said. The group raised additional money Sunday during a kick-off fundraiser, #4THEKIDS Family Festival, held at the Main Street Event Center in Norman.

Aunties are women in the Native American community who love kids and provide comfort and nourishment, Cobb-Greetham said..

"You are always a presence and are always there. You may not be related, but still be their Auntie," she said.

The group came together after learning migrant children could be housed at an Oklahoma Army base.

The federal government announced plans in June to use Fort Sill as a temporary emergency influx shelter for 1,400 migrant children detained at the U.S.-Mexico border at Fort Sill, according to an emailed statement from the Administration for Children and Families. Hundreds of people protested in July. The Office of Refugee Resettlement, a division of the U.S. Department of Children and Families, did not use Fort Sill for housing.

"But even if the intention is not to come to Fort Sill, those kids have to go somewhere," Randi Sunray of the Kiowa and Ponca tribes said. "Whenever there is a need, it's great to see the tribal community come together."

Sunray said she initially got involved with the Aunties because of family separation and Fort Sill.

The Office for Refugee Resettlement "has deactivated the Fort Sill Army Base" as a temporary shelter and "does not have an immediate need to place children in temporary emergency influx facilities," according to the emailed statement.

"Native Americans know a thing or two about family separation," she said. "Fort Sill has historically been a place of family separation."

The Army base has a long history with the Native American community, having served both as a prison and boarding school. Fort Sill was also the site of a Japanese-American internment campus during World War II.

Auntie Francene Monenerkit of the Comanche Nation, has a different perspective on Fort Sill. Her grandmother was born there and Monenerkit said she considers it home.

"Part of our culture is when someone comes to your house, you feed them," she said, adding that even though the children are not going to Fort Sill, "someone needs help somewhere."

The group's focus shifted from Fort Sill to how they could help at the border. The Aunties connected with the Regional Food Bank of Oklahoma and donated money will be sent to Texas.

Cathy Nestlen, the food bank's spokeswoman, said the Regional Food Bank is part of Feeding America and funds will go to El Paso, another Feeding America member.

"El Paso was overflowing with migrants and needed help," Nestlen said.

El Paso's lone food bank is Pasoans Fighting Hunger and is a distribution center for more than 130 partner pantries across the borderland region, according to the food bank's website.

"It's been rewarding in so many ways, and we are just getting going," said Lauren Clark, Chickasaw Nation. She is the Auntie's youngest member at 34.

She said the Aunties come from various backgrounds and each brings something unique to the group. Clark lives in Oklahoma City and is an attorney. She said she has been able to handle legal issues that arise such as filling out the necessary paperwork to become a registered non-profit organization.

Cobb-Greetham said she hopes the groundwork the group is doing now helps it succeed long into the future. She said this year's theme of family separation is just the first of many issues they want to tackle. Next year the focus will be on Native American children in foster care, she said.

"We want to keep this going. We would like if 20 years from now someone says, 'Call the Aunties,'" Cobb-Greetham said.

To learn more about The Auntie Project, visit www.theauntieproject.com.

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