Friendship House founder gets lifetime honor

By Alysa Landry
Special to the Times

WASHINGTON, Nov. 7, 2013

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(Times photo – Chris Burnside)

TOP: A young Jason and a young Pocahontas arrived at Zoo Boo, held Oct. 26 at the Navajo Nation in Window Rock.

BOTTOM: Kayla Hudson from Rock Springs, Ariz. attended the Navajo Nation Zoo’s Zoo boo event as her favorite superhero, Wonder Woman.

Helen Devore Waukazoo was 19 when she began volunteering with a Christian group that sought to smooth American Indians' transitions from reservations to the San Francisco Bay area.

A native of Crownpoint, N.M., Waukazoo, who is Navajo, grew up in a traditional sheep-herding family. At age 13, she was removed from her home and sent to Intermountain Indian School in Brigham City, Utah. After graduating, she signed up for a Bureau of Indian Affairs relocation program, which sent her to San Francisco.

Thousands of Native youths did the same thing in the aftermath of the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, which encouraged American Indians to leave reservations, acquire vocational skills and assimilate into the dominant society. The program paid for moving expenses and promised to provide training and resources in a handful of designated cities, including San Francisco.

The transition to urban life was difficult, said Waukazoo, who co-founded Friendship House Association of American Indians and has served as chief executive officer of the San Francisco-based drug and alcohol treatment center for more than 30 years.

"When I got here, I found there were no services of any kind for American Indian people," she said. "To this day, I'm amazed at what my life has become, how my career began."

Waukazoo, now 72, has spent more than half a century helping Natives find a safe haven in San Francisco and "learn to walk in two worlds" just like she did so many years ago. During a gala Oct. 19, she received a lifetime achievement award for her work with Friendship House.

Former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown presented the award during a celebration that honored the 50-year history of Friendship House -- and Waukazoo's commitment to the organization and to serving American Indians.

Originally operated by the Christian Reformed Church, Friendship House was established in 1963 as a drop-in center that helped Natives find affordable housing and employment and develop urban survival skills. In 1972, Waukazoo made it her mission to help Natives recover from drug and alcohol addictions.

"I didn't know that was going to be my life's work," said Waukazoo, who learned in boarding school that she had no potential beyond doing house cleaning, cooking and other manual labor. She went on to hold almost every position at Friendship House.

Waukazoo didn't have personal experience with drug or alcohol addiction, but she saw her peers succumb to it as they struggled with urban life. She met her husband, Martin Waukazoo, in 1981 when he was a client at Friendship House, receiving treatment for alcoholism.

"There was a lot I had to learn, a lot I had to do," she said. "When I look back, I realize I never dreamed we could come this far."

When Waukazoo took over as executive director in 1980, she had seven employees and 12 clients. Friendship House now supports more than 50 staff members in two locations: a four-story, 80-bed treatment facility in San Francisco and a program for women with children in Oakland, Calif. It has received national recognition for its adherence to cultural values and a relapse rate that is half that of the average treatment center.

Waukazoo attributes its success to a blend of Western psychology and American Indian tradition. She learned early in her career that when Natives abandon their tradition, they are more prone to addiction.

Friendship House offers prayer, medicine men, talking circles, sweat lodges and healing ceremonies. Clients can stay at the residential center for up to one year and receive training in life and employment skills as they get back on their feet.

"We have a cultural approach," Waukazoo said. "It's based on the Navajo way, the healing ceremony, but it's open to all Natives. People who come in, right away they identify this as an Indian organization. They feel comfortable here."

Under Waukazoo's leadership, Friendship House cut ties with the Christian Reformed Church and became a nonprofit organization owned and operated by American Indians. It is licensed and certified by state and national agencies.

It also maintains ties with the Navajo Nation, serving clients referred from the Arizona portion of the reservation and subcontracting with the Nation's health department.

To date, Friendship House has served more than 3,000 residential clients, or about 200 per year, Waukazoo said. That includes a total of 170 Navajo clients since 2006.

Most staff members have experienced the same challenges as the clients, said Orlando Nakai, executive director of Friendship House. Sixty percent of the staff have battled addictions and are in recovery.

"The staff stands as an example," he said. "It's part of the program to help clients better their lifestyles and become productive members of society."

Clients find empathy at Friendship House, said Nakai, who is Navajo. Culturally integrated services and real experience combine to offer Natives hope for recovery. Another strength is Waukazoo's personal commitment to each client.

"This is Helen's passion," Nakai said. "She's the heartbeat of Friendship House today. She meets with every client when they leave the program. She is compassionate toward them and listens to them."

Although she earned a lifetime achievement award, Waukazoo has no plans to retire. The organization seven years ago opened a new facility -- a process that was 15 years in the making -- and Waukazoo plans more improvements in the future.

"My determination was to have a site one day that my grandchildren could see," she said. "I learned from my father a long time ago that I could do anything I wanted to in life. I'm not quitting now."