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BLOOMFIELD — Several Native American students at Bloomfield High School spent the school year developing a conference to help their peers become youth leaders.

That effort, led by Community Builders, a student leadership program at the high school, became a reality on Friday when a native youth conference was held that offered a mixture of sessions that encouraged student interaction, self-identity, Native American culture and college preparation.

Donovan Newton, the leadership program president, said developing those skills is important because it helps build relationships and prepares students to become community leaders.

"By getting out of our comfort zones, we can understand other tribes or other cultures. It can benefit our communities and governments," Newton said.

Jessica Herrera, the leadership program vice president, said that while the conference was designed to help Native American students, it was open to all students and those from the surrounding school districts.

She added the event was also a way to have students openly communicate, regardless of grades.

One way the students incorporated culture was by having a session devoted to jewelry making, which was led by Cathy Smith, the Navajo language and culture teacher at Mesa Alta Junior High School in Bloomfield.

Smith encouraged participants to decorate the necklaces they were making with designs that represent their personalities.

"Like I said, you're unique. There's no one like you. Don't ever forget that," she said.

Smith also talked about the significance of the four sacred mountains of the Navajo people.

As Freshmen Elaine Belin and Courteney Harvey sorted through the selection of beads to attach to their shell necklaces, they talked about their reasons for participating in the conference. Harvey said she wanted to gain more confidence and saw the sessions offered at the conference as an opportunity to step outside of her comfort zone. Belin said one of the presentations she was interested in attending was the one centering on college readiness.

"Most of the students here don't think school matters. They don't have motivation to finish school and graduate, so it's good that they're doing this," Belin said, adding she would like to attend either New Mexico Highlands University or the University of New Mexico.

Doyle Anderson, president and CEO for the Foundation for Indigenous Education, Leadership Development and Sustainability, spoke about the benefits of peer-to-peer mentoring. Anderson's organization offers a mentoring program for Native American students, which will be implemented at Bloomfield High next school year.

In the session presented by Anderson, who is a member of the Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Canada, students took on roles as mentors and mentees to demonstrate their abilities and skills in providing guidance.

"A lot of times, our kids are missing support systems in their lives, so we bring mentors in," Anderson said. "In this case, the kids are their own mentors. …There is a real power in people being mentored by those who have gone through the same experience that they have."

Last July, members of the student leadership program competed against other schools at the Community Builders Youth STEAM and Cultural Conference in Albuquerque to receive funding to create regional youth conferences.

Their proposal led to them placing first and receiving $750 from Los Alamos National Laboratory and Sundance Educational Consulting. Herrera, the group's vice president, said the students used that money and additional sponsorship to develop the conference.

"It was tough, but we managed to get through it," she said.

Noel Lyn Smith covers the Navajo Nation for The Daily Times. She can be reached at 505-564-4636.

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