“The Best of Both Worlds”


For nearly forty years, families in the Church have provided foster homes for American Indian students. Today, former placement students are living the gospel in their own homes, blessing a new generation of Latter-day Saints.

“I am an Indian, and the placement program helped me appreciate fully what that means. The program didn’t make me into a white woman. It helped me know how to cope with life in my culture and in the non-Indian culture.”

These are the words of Verenda Dosola Rainer, but they could be attributed to almost any graduate of the Indian placement program. In one sense, the statement defines the program’s purpose.

“My own placement experience was very rich,” Verenda says. “From my Apache family in the Arizona desert, I went to Alpine, Utah, and was loved and cared for. But I had very little self-esteem. I had never seen so much food, so many comforts, so much of everything. It was hard for me at first, thinking of my impoverished family as I lived with such abundance.”

Verenda was one of eleven children, nine of whom went on placement; six graduated from high school while on placement, and three served missions. “And the blessings continue,” Verenda adds. “Three of those have served as bishops, and many temple marriages have come from the examples that were set.”

In 1969, Verenda met John Rainer through a roommate at BYU. They married in 1970 and settled in Provo not far from her foster family. Something happened then that clarifies the real spirit of the student placement program.

“My own mom had just graduated from Utah Technical College, as it was called then, in nutrition and health science. My foster mother had contracted Parkinson’s disease. Mom moved in with my foster mom’s family to care for her. I retain yet a vivid mental picture of those two older women hugging each other like sisters.”

John and Verenda moved to Globe, Arizona, in 1982, “with a mission to perform,” says John. “Verenda and I had concluded that we must synthesize the best of both worlds. The white man’s culture did not have all the answers for us, but neither did the Indian culture.”

John is a former president of the San Carlos Branch; Verenda taught seminary at Globe High School to classes of mostly Anglos. This may be one of the most dramatic evidences of the placement program’s effects—an Indian woman who spent her childhood barefoot later teaching Anglo youth the gospel.

The Rainers now live in Provo, Utah, where John makes flutes and composes music in the Taos tradition combined with a hint of western, which he records and sells. The beautiful resonance of his handmade flutes is haunting.

“Taos Indians were a peaceful pueblo tribe,” he explains. “At the end of the day, men like my grandfather would go down to the stream and rest from their labors playing their flutes. My grandfather had such respect for all living things that at the end of a successful hunt, he would lay hands on the head of an animal and thank God for providing him and his family with food.”

John was converted in 1961 and later served in the Southwest Indian Mission. He then went on to earn his bachelor’s and master’s degrees at BYU, where he was Assistant Indian Education Chairman. While at BYU, John taught Native American music, showing students not only how to play flutes but how to build them and compose music for them. “The effect of the placement program on my wife has benefited me both directly and indirectly,” says John. “It has blessed our entire family.”

As early as 1947, American Indians in the Southwest were seeking foster families in the Church so their youth could attend high school. These individual requests led to the establishment in 1954 of the Indian Student Placement Service (ISPS), sponsored by the Church to serve members who were native Americans.

The program has helped prepare a generation of faithful members of the Church who now provide a strong network of leadership among their people. Increased educational opportunities may have been the primary reason Indian students sought foster homes in the beginning, but today those who have benefitted most from the program are quick to say that they are equally grateful for other influences the placement program has had on their lives. Besides an increased appreciation for their unique cultures, Indian youth have come to better understand their own roles for the future.

Another benefit has been the training young Indians have received in how the Church functions. For Indian parents new to the Church, the placement program has provided foster shoulders for youth to stand on (with one foot at least), while their own parents’ shoulders were strengthened.

Even with a wider range of Church programs in place now among the Indians and with more public school facilities both on and near the reservation, the placement program continues to fill the needs of certain youth. Those needs vary with circumstance and location. One such need is explained by a former student: “My two oldest children are getting a great deal out of their high school experiences with foster families. I am so glad they have the chance to go.

“When I went on placement years ago, I just didn’t take advantage of the opportunities. After the program, I became less active in the Church, and even while I was in the foster home I didn’t try very hard to make the most of it. I regret that now. I wish I had become as strong as my foster family wanted me to be. That was a rebellious time for me.

“I’m pleased to say it is going even better for my son and my daughter than I had expected. I, too, am growing from the challenges.”

Today the students go to foster families only for their high school education, rather than for elementary and junior high education, as they did formerly. So the program is considerably smaller today than it was in 1970 when more than five thousand students were on placement. Currently there are around five hundred students registered.

The program continues to provide young Native Americans with a means of laying a foundation for further education and leadership. Branches, wards, and stakes throughout the reservations and elsewhere are being blessed by the contributions of members and leaders who graduated from the placement programs.

Bishop John Redhair of the Page Fourth Ward, in the Page Arizona Stake, says of the placement graduates in his ward, which is nearly all Native American, “They are most often the ones who are our leaders, and their families are exemplary.”

Ray and Nona Slim

Ray Slim and his wife, Nona, live in Page, Arizona, with their five boys. Their marriage is a direct result of their placement experience.

“We met in Ogden, Utah, where we both had been placement students,” recalls Nona. “I was in cosmetology school, and Ray had just returned from his mission and was staying again with his foster family.”

Ray’s Indian family had slipped from Church activity, and “having just returned from the mission field,” Ray explains, “I was more comfortable at this time with my foster family, who very generously made a place for me.”

Ray is currently high priests group leader in the Page Fourth Ward and works as a warehouseman at the Salt River power generating plant just outside Page on the Navajo reservation. After he and Nona were married, they returned to the reservation, and he went to work trying to reintroduce his family to the gospel.

“I feel responsible for helping my father and brother return to the faith,” Ray says. “Many of the old Indian ways used to have spiritual significance, but they don’t so much any more. They have taken on more a role of entertainment. Still, some Indians try to juggle old ways with gospel teachings.”

“It is hard for me to integrate Indian religious traditions with the gospel,” he emphasizes. “So I don’t try. But I love my family and hope to be able to influence them by the way we are living.”

For Ray and Nona Slim, the placement program did more than just bring them together. They agree that it was while they were on placement that they laid the foundation for their solid testimonies of the gospel, glimpsed more clearly their identity as Native Americans, and became convinced of the importance of an eternal family. “Nona and I have been so blessed,” Ray smiles. “The gospel balances our life; now we are trying to reach out and extend that balance beyond ourselves.”

Nona was the eldest of ten children, the youngest of whom is now on placement. “For me,” she says, “the biggest blessing placement brought me is my eternal family.” To explain how placement affected her family, Nona refers to the thrill of her life—going with her parents when they were sealed in the St. George Temple two years ago, and adopting another son when she and Ray thought they couldn’t have more children. “What a blessing this boy has been—as have all my children,” Nona says fondly. “Placement added a dimension to the valuable teachings of my own loving parents.”

Allen and Eloise Goatson

“I was especially eager for a good education,” Eloise Goatson offers as her reason for being enthusiastic about going on placement. Eloise’s eagerness for an education was perhaps best demonstrated by the efforts she made to graduate from high school early while on placement. “I got to go on placement for only three years, while many people I knew had more than twice that time. So I wanted to use well what time I did have.” Following placement, Eloise graduated from BYU in secondary education. While she was at school, her brother roomed with the young man who was to become her husband.

“The education department had an event, and you were supposed to invite someone you didn’t know to go with you,” she recalls. “So I asked my brother’s roommate, who seemed like a nice guy.” They went, had a good time, and later began dating.

As Eloise tells the story, Allen smiles quietly and offers a mild “Well, it wasn’t exactly that way.” But he stops there. Being a discreet man, Alan does not inject a contradicting version; he lets you know tacitly that he’d already had his eye on Eloise and would have pursued her.

Allen went to school on placement for ten years in Mesa, Arizona, served a mission in the South Dakota Rapid City Mission, and then earned his degree at BYU in business management: “Thanks to the placement program and the fantastic Coombs family I lived with,” Allen explains, “Eloise and I are the first generation in our families to be living and teaching our children the gospel.”

Because Allen became proficient in math and could communicate well, he got a job at the power plant at Page. They keep in close touch with his and Eloise’s natural families nearby.

“We have also remained very close to our foster families,” Eloise smiles. “Fortunately, our children know our foster families very well and understand why we are so grateful for the experiences they gave us. Because we were able to stand on our foster parents’ shoulders, so to speak, our four children will now be able to stand taller, too.”

Cody and Vaida Black

When Vaida and Cody Black were married, Vaida wore a wedding dress made by her foster mother, Libby Brindley. Vaida had gone to live with the Brindleys in Koosharem, Utah, when she was eight years old. “The Brindleys had a wedding reception for us as if I were their real daughter,” says Vaida, “which tells you how close we’ve stayed since I was in second grade. Sister Brindley taught me to give speeches well, too. Then, because of increased family travel, the Brindleys had to let me go and live with a second family and ultimately a third.

“I learned how to do so many things well from these dear people. I could never repay them, except perhaps by the way I live my life.” Throughout high school, and later at BYU, Vaida served in leadership roles. It wasn’t until years later that Vaida discovered that every year, her natural mother would pawn her jewelry so Vaida could go to school in suitable clothes. Such private sacrifices continue to be frequent in the placement program.

Cody was the first of his family to go on placement. But many have followed. “Most important for me,” Cody explains, “placement taught me the pioneer ethic. I learned the valuable lesson of doing what is expected of you, of meeting commitments and obligations.”

For the Blacks and their four children, the placement legacy they enjoy is family home evenings, scripture reading, making plans for missions, college, temple marriage, and the desire to build lives on gospel principles.

“As a boy, I had tested my foster family with some rebellious habits, but their love won me over,” Cody adds. “Now, as a priesthood leader in my home, I try to use love to direct my family. I am so grateful for wise examples. Now, Vaida and I must be the examples.”

Lewis and Donna Singer

More than sixty foster children have found love and new direction in the home of Lewis and Donna Singer of Blanding, Utah. Lewis went on placement himself when he was ten years old, and Donna’s family, in Cache Valley, Utah, had several placement students live with them as she grew up. So for both Donna and Lewis, “providing a group home for troubled Native American boys seemed like the right thing to do.”

At times, the Singers had as many as twelve Indian boys living with them, but usually it was three at a time. As their own family grew, the numbers of foster children shrank. And about four years ago, their own children became their total domestic focus.

“My foster parents were the best I could’ve had,” recalls Lewis of his own placement experience. “My foster mom, a schoolteacher, helped me not only academically but in so many other ways. From their home, I was called to serve in the old Southwest Indian Mission, then went to BYU.”

The Singers now have seven children of their own—the oldest is serving in the South Dakota Rapid City Mission, the youngest was recently baptized. “They are all well-rounded kids,” says their admiring father—“excellent students, fine athletes, and active in church and in school leadership.” Two of their children have been student-body officers at Blanding High School. All are honors students.

Brother Singer is the Scoutmaster in the Blanding Second Ward, Blanding Utah Stake, where he was formerly a counselor in the stake presidency. Donna serves as advancement chairman for Scouting and teaches Sunday School. She was trained as an X-ray technician and is in charge of the Blanding urgent-care center. She has actively worked to improve health care and bring better facilities to their area.

With his degrees in education, Lewis is director of state and federal programs for San Juan County, and he recently served as acting principal at Mexican Hat Elementary School.

The Lord’s promise that the seed of Jacob would “blossom as the rose” is being fulfilled in our day by these families and hundreds of others like them. In wards and branches in many places, these children of Lehi are literally restoring to the house of Jacob the “knowledge of the covenant” (3 Ne. 5:25) that their forebears made with God.

As Verenda Rainer explains it, “My father was a medicine man, my husband has been a branch president; but the influence of the placement program goes far beyond our conversion to the Church. As Lehi’s seed, we realize that through our baptismal and temple covenants, a great work is to be done before the Lord’s coming—among our people as well as by our people for others.”

Fostered by love and having a knowledge of their own identity as covenant people, placement graduates are having substantial influence as they strengthen the Church and their communities and enrich individual lives.

[photos] Above, left: Traditions of the American Indian have long been a source of wonder and meditation. Through the placement program, young Church members learn to preserve and honor their heritage while gaining an education that helps them serve others in the Church and the community. (Photo by Floyd Holdman/The Stock Solution.) Top, right: Ray and Nona Slim with son Rylynn Edward. (Photo by Giles H. Florence, Jr.)

[photos] Top: Cody and Vaida black, of Page, Arizona, surrounded by their children: Orlinda, 12, Cory, 9, Coralee, 10, and Shelli, 16 (left to right). Bottom, left: John Rainer now lives in Provo, Utah. Right: Like many former placement students, Allen and Eloise Goatson met at BYU and have returned to their community. (Photography by Giles H. Florence, Jr.)