September 15, 2022

Friends of the Children opening He Sapa chapter, executive director announced

Dr. Valeriah Big Eagle selected to lead the organization


September 15, 2022


Karen Werstein


RAPID CITY, S.D. - Friends of the Children, a national nonprofit that pairs children facing the greatest obstacles with a paid, professional mentor (called a Friend) for 12+ years, announced they have partnered with the Indigenous community in Rapid City to open a Friends of the Children-He Sapa chapter and named Valeriah Big Eagle as the executive director. This will be Friends of the Children’s first culturally-specific site created in partnership with an Indigenous community.

“Our youth are sacred beings to protect and they have an inherent resilience in them already,” said Valeriah Big Eagle. “As someone who was educated and raised on a reservation, I understand where our youth come from. We will be a healing-informed chapter that combines the unique Friends of the Children mentoring model with the Indigenous ways of knowing and being that are trauma informed and can encourage youth and their families to take pride in being Lakota. These youth will have the opportunity to thrive as they are grounded in who they are and where they come from, while healing from difficult but not insurmountable circumstances.”

The Friends of the Children model work ensures that youth are supported from as early as age 4 through high school graduation. This means youth will be supported for 12+ years no matter what and this aligns with stages of the Lakota Lifecycle. Friends—who will be called “Relatives” in the He Sapa chapter—are paid and trained professional mentors who spend 3-4 hours a week with each child one on one at school, at home and in the community. Indigenous youth are matched with Indigenous Friends who teach valuable life skills, model healthy behaviors, and create pathways to more choices and opportunities for youth. Core to Friends’ work will be centering Indigenous cultural lifeways like naming ceremonies, making of relatives, coming of age ceremonies, and healing camps as part of the Friends of the Children experience.

“Our model was founded on research showing that the single most important factor in overcoming childhood adversity is a long-term, nurturing relationship with a consistent, caring adult,” said Tasha Fridia, Director of Tribal Programs at Friends of the Children - National. “This is something Indigenous peoples have always known, and it is reflected in tribal concepts of kinship and community. We look to deepen relationships in Indian Country to ensure that Indigenous youth and families benefit from our professional mentoring model. We are thrilled to begin with the He Sapa chapter while strengthening partnerships with other Indigenous communities across Indian country.”

A third-party evaluation of Friends of the Children program graduates showed that: 92% of graduates go on to enroll in post-secondary education, serve our country or enter the workforce; 83% of youth obtain a high school diploma or GED; 93% remain free from juvenile justice system involvement; and 98% wait to parent until after their teen years.

In partnership with the Oglala Sioux Tribe and other community organizations, Friends of the Children will enroll Indigenous children ages 4 to 6. The program will focus on healing, front-end prevention and intervention to support safety and stability for children and families while grounding youth and families in their culture and traditional lifeways.

"The He Sapa chapter is near and dear to my heart. Growing up in Rapid City and graduating from Rapid City Stevens High School, I have seen both the tremendous need and the great potential in the community,” said Terri Balkenhol Sorensen, National CEO of Friends of the Children. “What a gift to have Valeriah launch and lead our efforts in He Sapa. Her life experience, education and leadership in the region are invaluable. She understands the inequitable challenges that Indigenous students face due to lack of cultural understanding. Her work will support not only youth in our program, but their entire families.”

The He Sapa Chapter’s focus on the entire family integrates well with Friends of the Children’s

Two-Generation (2Gen) model. This approach acknowledges that when parents and caregivers do better, children do better--and vice versa. A study paid for by the Annie E. Casey Foundation validated that Friends of the Children builds social capital and positively impacts outcomes for both the children and caregivers enrolled in the program.

Several notable funders have been instrumental in bringing the chapter to He Sapa, including SCHEELS, Echo Fund, Margaret A. Cargill Philanthropies and MacKenzie Scott. Additionally, a formal resolution of support from the Oglala Sioux Tribe will help ensure the success of this chapter. A ceremonial signing with the Tribe will happen on Friday, September 23 affirming the new chapter and securing a commitment by Friends of the Children to expand to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

Dr. Valeriah Big Eagle, Wakan Wocekiye Win (Sacred Prayer Woman), is an enrolled member of the Ihanktonwan Oyate and currently serves on the Title VI Indian Education Parent Advisory Committee and the Indigenous Education Task Force for Rapid City Area Schools. She received both her bachelor’s degree in sociology and her master’s degree in education from South Dakota State University. In addition, she received her doctorate in education, with a focus in educational leadership, from the University of South Dakota, specializing in adult and higher education administration. Some of her accomplishments include being selected for Prairie Business Magazine’s “40 Under 40” Award, the F.O. Butler in Excellence for Community Service Award, and for serving as a 2020 Bush Fellow. She has also

participated in various leadership programs including: Leadership South Dakota, Native Nation Rebuilders, Rapid City Collective Impact Emerging Leaders, and Leadership Rapid City.

The He Sapa chapter currently has a board of directors including: Board Chair Lila Mehlhaff of City of Rapid City; Vice Chair Gene Tyon of Oaye Luta Okolakiciye and Board Member Tasha R. Fridia of Friends of the Children - National. They are in the process of hiring Friends and staff. Interested candidates can visit for a list of open positions.

Friends of the Children was founded in Oregon by entrepreneur Duncan Campbell nearly 30 years ago. The organization serves children and families in 26 locations across the country, in both rural and urban areas; 15 of these locations serve Indigenous youth and families in the community. This announcement comes on the heels of the organization’s extraordinary $44 million gift from MacKenzie Scott which in part supported the opportunity to expand partnerships with tribal communities starting with the launch of Friends of the Children – He Sapa.

Access the digital media kit here and view the Power of One video here


About Friends of the Children

Friends of the Children is a national nonprofit with the mission of impacting generational change by empowering youth who are facing the greatest obstacles through relationships with professional mentors – 12+ years, no matter what. Our successful model is now in 26 locations around the country. Our work has been featured in The Associated Press, The New York Times, Stanford Social Innovation Review and CBS News. Visit to learn more and follow us on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and LinkedIn.