Parents Pitch for Kids

Cherokee town ready to build own `Field of Dreams' to help its youth

By , Staff writer of The Christian Science Monitor

`IF you build it, he will come," echoed the voice in "Field of Dreams," the 1989 movie about an Iowa farmer who builds a baseball field in the middle of his corn stalks.

In Cherry Tree, Okla., a poor rural area of about 500 Cherokee Indians, some parents are constructing their own "field of dreams" they hope will attract the whole community.

The baseball field they are building, along with nature trail and gymnasium, is part of an attempt to heal a community where many kids turn to alcohol, drugs, vandalism, and suicide.

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Cherry Tree, which lines either side of a one-lane stretch of highway that snakes gently through the rolling green hills of northeastern Oklahoma, has neither a library, post office, nor town hall. An elementary school, a couple of small country stores, an unlabeled community center, a housing development, and trailers and modest homes dot the landscape.

"There's nothing here," says parent Dianna Armstrong. "Most of the trouble children have is, they need something to do."

So more than a year ago, she and two other parents formed a committee to tackle the boredom and lack of self-esteem besetting many of Cherry Tree's youth.

They asked Charlie Soap, director of the Christian Children's Fund for the Oklahoma-area, to help them. He develops self-help projects and works with youth.

Mr. Soap remembers the first meeting: "When I asked them what they wanted to do, they said, `We want to build a ball field. The kids are interested in sports.' I said, what good would that do when you need to work on education and other problems young people are having? They said, `We want to make an environment where families can come together. We want to heal the whole community,' " says Soap. "I thought, what a good idea."

At first, says Soap, the parents were discouraged because they were few in number. But he reminded them how much one person alone can accomplish.

With Soap's assistance, the parents sent out a survey to Cherry Tree residents. The survey asked people what problems they faced and what kind of facilities they wanted in the community.

In the survey, young people said one reason they turned to alcohol and drugs was because no one cared about them, says Soap.

"The problems are basically the same" as in other nearby rural Indian communities, says Michael W. Brown, a member of the parents' committee. But "the people here have taken an initiative to correct it."

The now seven-member parent group - the Cherry Tree Community Youth Services - got busy searching for a site. They went to the Cherokee Nation land committee with their proposal. The Cherokee Nation, which owns the land next to the community center, gave them 115 acres.

The parents then applied for grants. They received a $75,000 three-year grant from the Charles Stewart Mott Foundation as well as a $118,000 Housing and Urban Development block grant to build a sports center.

Since then, so many other agencies have offered support that "we've had to refuse some because we have too many things going," says Bertha Alsenay, who works with Soap. The Boy Scouts and Girl Scouts are bringing programs in; Oklahoma State University extension service is funding after-school care for the kids of working parents; and the Cherokee Nation drug and alcohol abuse program is taking part, among others.

"It's ballooned so fast, it's almost scary," Ms. Armstrong says with pride.

The parents have also organized potluck dinners, volleyball tournaments, and other fund-raising events. Money is used to take kids on field trips. Some kids have earned their own money for trips by doing cleanup work. They raised enough cash to travel to Houston to see a baseball game. "That was probably the biggest thing that ever happened" to those kids, Soap says.

Armstrong's 16-year-old son, Brandon, says many of the kids are looking forward to the sports facility and ball field: "They're pretty isolated. They play around the house. Now they'll have somewhere to go."

Cherry Tree Community Youth Services is almost ready to put bulldozer to dirt. They want the community to do most of the work itself.

"To see this happening and the kids involved is exciting," Mr. Brown says.

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