‘A life well lived’: Friendship House family mourns matriarch, ‘hero’
Helen Devore Waukazoo (Sept. 15, 1941 – April 5, 2021)
Helen Devore Waukazoo, chief executive officer of the Friendship House Association of American Indians, was not just a compassionate leader and loving mother, but a trailblazer who transformed dreams into reality.
Over 58 years, Helen co-founded, developed and built the Friendship House, the largest substance abuse prevention, treatment and recovery program of its kind serving Native American women, men, youth and families.
She leaves behind a legacy of tenacity, courage and commitment that will carry on through all of those who admired and respected her for her unwavering devotion.
“She was the most compassionate person I have ever known, but beneath her gentle and kind manner was a brilliant visionary and dynamic career woman on a mission ‘to heal our people,’ as she would say,” said her aide of 30 years, Kristi Kurtz Clark.
Helen’s husband, Martin Waukazoo, who is CEO of the Native American Health Center in Oakland and San Francisco, said Helen’s life and success were marked by determination, perseverance and spirituality.
“I saw her as my hero,” he said. “She taught me how to be a better human being, a better man.”
Rooted in her Navajo culture, Waukazoo pioneered the integration of Native American spiritual values, traditional healing, and proven Western therapies into addiction treatment programs that take into account underlying cycles of psychological, social, and economic dislocation.
“Helen took the standard treatment protocol for alcohol and drug dependency and strengthened it with her cultural knowledge and wisdom,” said Clark.
Treatment and recovery at Friendship House includes prayer, healing ceremonies, talking circles and a sweat lodge.
“The uniqueness of the program was that she incorporated a lot of the traditional aspects of recovery and was always pushing for a spiritual connection with a higher being, the Creator,” said Helen’s niece, Paulene Thomas.
In her condolences, current San Francisco Mayor London Breed said Helen was not just a passionate advocate for the American Indian community but also a personal mentor and confidant to “so many who turned to her for guidance and understanding.”
Martin Waukazoo said Helen didn’t just talk about her culture, she lived it.
“She taught us by doing,” he said. “She relied on her Navajo traditions and what her father told her growing up on the Navajo Reservation.”
Helen knew that the key to a successful recovery is to get the residents connected spiritually, he said.
“It wasn’t just a recovery program from alcoholism and drug addiction, it was a recovery of self,” he said. “It was a recovery of family, your traditional ways, your culture, of who you are.”
Helen said, “If we are not in a good way mentally, physically, spiritually and emotionally, we cannot heal others. We are not only the healers whose job is helping people, we also practice the healing of our own lives, the spiritual part of our own being.”
‘Help your people’
Waukazoo grew up traditionally in Crownpoint, where her family raised sheep and grew corn.
Her father, Juan Devore, a Hatalii, predicted that she would “walk in two worlds” to serve her people.
“He used to always say, ‘Help your people,’” said Helen’s sister, Phyllis Devore Thomas. “That’s what we’re supposed to do. That’s the Navajo way.”
Phyllis said that had a big influence on her sister, whom she was very close to.
“It makes me feel good to think about what she did and all those people that she helped,” said Phyllis. “I’m proud of her. I really love her.”
At 13, Helen was taken from her family and sent to the Intermountain Indian School in Utah, a boarding school experience that was deeply traumatizing for her.
After she graduated at 18, under the Indian Relocation Act of 1956, the school put Helen on a bus to take a job as a housecleaner in San Francisco where she met many other Native Americans in similar circumstances.
Helen quickly learned her Native American brothers and sisters faced a spectrum of challenges, including discrimination, language barriers, poverty, alcoholism, drug addiction, unemployment, homelessness, and a lack of services.
She started volunteering for a small Dutch Reformed Christian Church program, created to assist Native Americans, that operated out of a Victorian home in San Francisco’s Mission District that would ultimately become the Friendship House in 1963.
“… When I started working at Friendship House,” Helen said, “I saw many needs. I saw our American Indian people losing sight of life.
“I had just come from American Indian Boarding School where they told me I would not go further than doing house cleaning, cooking, and other labor,” she said. “But my Navajo father told me I could be anyone I choose. So, I did, and this agency is the result.”
In the 1970s and 80s, Helen forged collaborative alliances and lobbied for culturally based community programs, resulting in the first funding allocation for Indian health services from the San Francisco Board of Supervisors.
After years of working as a secretary, then bookkeeper, and board member, Helen rose to the helm of the organization in 1986.
Ron Rowell, Choctaw/Kaskaskia, who was Friendship House board president for 25 years, said that the decision to hire Helen as executive director in 1986 was “divinely inspired.”
“It became obvious that she would be the right choice for someone to lead the organization,” said Rowell. “She was always on task, always focused on the good of the program and the people in it.”
Politically, Helen was very savvy while remaining anchored to her culture, he said.
“She knew who she was,” said Rowell. “She knew what her values were. She allowed all of that to lead her.”
At that time, the need for addiction treatment and recovery services was far greater in the community than the Friendship House could accommodate and there was a waiting list of clients.
Clark said Helen showed her natural political acumen by doing things like inviting local politicians and dignitaries to client graduations, where they could see firsthand that Friendship House was doing something right.
“Indians were coming in off the streets, referred by their families or hospitals, or brought or sent by their tribes to ask for treatment,” said Clark. “It became apparent that Friendship House needed much more space.
“Helen insisted on speaking with the mayor of San Francisco at the time, Willie Brown Jr., after city officials informed her once again that money was tight,” she said.
Deeply moved by Helen’s story, Mayor Brown insisted she get the money she needed and Helen’s dream of a modern facility to house the Friendship House programs finally came to fruition in 2005 when the land was purchased and a $12 million, four-story, 80-bed, state-of-the-art healing center was built on Julian Street.
Helen said, “I guess I’m a dreamer. I think to myself, ‘Wow! We could do this!’ In those early years, I thought, ‘Why can’t Indian people have a nice building to work out of?’
“When people have tried to keep me from moving forward with a dream or plan, I just ask them, ‘How can you help me?’” she said.
That is what made her a visionary, said Martin.
“She didn’t just dream,” he said. “She made the dreams come true.”
Another dream materialized when Waukazoo created the Friendship House Lodge in Oakland, a special residential treatment program for women with children.
Today, with a staff of over 70 serves more than 500 clients annually, the Friendship House thrives as an independent, American Indian operated, nonprofit corporation.
“My aunt’s story is remarkable,” said Paulene Thomas. “She pretty much started the program from scratch and kept working for Natives who were in the cities.”
Paulene said Helen also came back to Navajo every summer to visit family and celebrate alumni who had graduated from the Friendship House programs.
She had countless supporters and received many awards and recognitions, including from current House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, D-Calif., and television personality Maria Shriver, said Paulene.
“They gave her awards for making the program strong and teaching others how to build it up,” said Paulene.
In 2013, Helen was awarded a special congressional recognition by Pelosi who said Friendship House was an “asset” to San Francisco and called Helen’s “leadership, vision and inexhaustible commitment” extraordinary.
‘It was medicine’
Clark said Helen had more energy, even at 79, than anyone she knew.
“She woke up every morning before dawn to pray to the Creator and ancestors for herself, her family and the clients and staff,” she said.
Her family eulogy states, “We will miss her beautiful laugh, her unexpected sense of humor, the true humility and genuine compassion she showed everyone, from a client entering the program to the governor of California – she was always the same. She had a heart of gold, and her heart truly beat for helping her people.”
In his condolences, California Gov. Gavin Newsom said he was “blessed” to know Helen during his time as mayor of San Francisco.
“It is hard to measure just how much of an impact she has had on our city and the state of California,” he said, “but if the thousands of healthy and recovered families is any indication, it is one that will be felt for generations to come.”
Waukazoo credited family as her greatest inspiration. She leaves behind her husband Martin, her son Duane Phillips, daughters Crystal Phillips and Karen Waukazoo, three grandchildren and four great grandchildren.
“She was such a huge part of our lives,” said Crystal. “She was the matriarch of our family. I miss her voice and the funny things she’d say and do.”
Throughout their lives, Helen’s family members all regularly volunteered at the Friendship House and were recruited for every holiday event and food drive, said Crystal.
“We’ve always agreed the friendship House was the fourth child of my mom,” said Crystal. “It was very much a part of our lives.”
Karen said her mom just had the expectation that you were supposed to be involved in the community.
Helen said, “I believe that we need to support and strengthen each other at every opportunity, and our American Indian traditions tell us that we should do this. Respect and support should be a part of how we act as individuals and how we function in our communities. Healthy people will do this without being reminded.”
Martin said Helen made family wherever she went and brought strength and resilience to the community.
“She was beautiful, inside and out,” he said. “She was known as Grandma, Mom, Auntie by the residents and the staff,” he said. “She would say something just to make you laugh, to make you feel better. It was medicine.”
Karen said her mom just had a gift for connecting with people.
“It was something in her essence,” she said. “Everybody loved her because she made you feel like you’re important. She was easy to talk to.”
Martin, who is Lakota, said Helen was also all-inclusive when it came to tribal affiliation, another hallmark of the Friendship House.
“She didn’t look at how different we are, she looked at how similar we are,” he said.
“At the Friendship House, we’re all one Nation over there – ‘cause it’s us against that disease,” states a client testimonial on the Friendship House website.
Helen brought traditional and spiritual leaders in from multiple tribes to be part of her treatment program, said Martin.
“These are not simply ‘clients’ – these are our relatives, our relations,” says traditional counselor Steve Darden, Diné/Cheyenne.
While almost a foot taller than his wife, Martin said, “she was much bigger than me in so many ways.”
“She was a gift from above,” he said. “She gave me strength and encouragement, telling me how proud she was of my accomplishments, but nothing compared to what she accomplished in her life.”
In a statement from the Friendship House, leaders and staff said, “Helen dedicated her life to helping those of us who struggled to find balance, peace and a sense of belonging. Her mission was very simple, yet profound: ‘We put families back together.’”
Helen’s daughter Karen, who works at the Friendship House as a project coordinator, says there is a big sense of loss.
“There’s nobody like her,” she said. “It’s so painful that Lou Gehrig’s disease took her so fast. I know that she’s not coming back so it’s definitely a struggle. I try to continue her vision. She’d want you to keep going forward.”
Reflecting on Helen’s life, her three children said Helen passed on a very strong work ethic and a sense of humility.
“One of the things I always admired about my mother is she was very respectful of everyone,” said her son Duane. “She was never condescending. She treated everybody equally.”
She had faith in the Friendship House clients and believed in second chances, said Crystal.
“She’s changed hundreds of lives, returned mothers and fathers back to their families and helped people get their kids back,” said Crystal.
Helen had told her children that if anything should ever happen to her they should stay strong.
“She said, ’Mourn, but go on with your life,” said Crystal. “My mom would want us to stay connected. She would say, ‘You’re family, you need to take care of each other.’”
Clark said Helen’s next dream for expansion of the Friendship House is a new building complex called “The Village,” a sacred space that Native Americans can call home, that will house a new residential treatment program for women with children, a health clinic, social services, a cultural and spiritual center, and transitional housing.
“Helen rallied lots of support for this new project, and I’m confident it will become a reality with the good work of those who are promising now to carry it on in her honor,” said Clark.
No doubt, Helen’s work and spirit will continue to live through all of those who knew her, said Rowell.
Helen said, “I like to think of the time to come, when we have prayed and worked and healed, and our people and our communities are healthy and thriving.”
“It was a life well lived,” said Rowell. “She was the kind of person you could look up to and trust.”