Students mentor Cherokee youth, explore heritage through program

The bonds built through the SMART program show.

The bonds show three afternoons a week when children at the Cherokee Youth Center rush over with hellos and hugs as Western Carolina University students arrive to mentor them one-on-one in reading and other academic skills.

They show when a mentor such as WCU sophomore Lydia Poetker from Taylorsville comforts a student. “When I told her I had to leave, she asked if she could have a picture of me,” Poetker said. “I didn’t have one, but it made me smile and inevitably brought me back the next semester.”

Now, Wayne Robbins, English instructor at Western and SMART program director, is rolling out new activities and rewards to strengthen a different kind of bond – the bond between the tribe’s young members and their own heritage. The recent Cherokee Preservation Foundation’s decision to continue supporting the program with a more than $50,000 grant to WCU’s English department means Robbins will be able to advance those efforts into the 2006-07 school year.

Children’s books centered on traditional Cherokee legends such as “How Rabbit Lost His Tail” and “How Medicine Came to the People” are the rewards for participants in the SMART program, which stands for Successful Mentoring, Artistic expression, Reading for life and Telling our story. SMART staff members are helping produce a play with the center’s drama club based on the book “The Elder Tree.” The story, which Western students adapted into a script, features an old oak tree who explains to Cherokee children why they should respect all creatures “from the lowest worm to the highest dove.”

Robbins also invited an elder to teach Cherokee language at the center once a week this semester and has met with an English graduate student about a “telling our story” project. Youth center participants will illustrate and write stories about themselves in the Cherokee language, and the book – with English subtitles – will be presented to the community and the children’s parents.

“What I’ve learned about the Cherokee culture is about the constant struggle for preservation of cultural identity in the midst of a larger society that tends to want to absorb people into it,” Robbins said.

The Cherokee Preservation Foundation funded a planning grant in 2003 for the SMART program sought by Laurel Vartabedian, who was a Western faculty member. Robbins began working with SMART in fall 2004 and became the program director in early 2005. The program offers Western students something beyond the kind of mentoring opportunities that do not require a 40-minute commute to the Cherokee Youth Center.

“It’s very different from an after-school program in Jackson County because of that cultural uniqueness on the reservation,” Robbins said.

WCU sophomore Christa Conner from Lexington said she has learned a few Cherokee words, though she admits she can’t pronounce or spell them well. “The language is very fascinating, and I love to hear them speak it,” said Conner, who is a mathematics major and English minor with a concentration in secondary education. “I have also learned a lot about their society and family structures as a whole. The Cherokee people are a very close-knit group, and I have a lot of respect for them.”

The director of the Cherokee Youth Center, Denise Ballard, said the center’s after-school participants look forward to visits from WCU students. “It makes such a difference,” Ballard said. “They help provide needed one-on-one attention to a large group of children.”

For more information, contact Wayne Robbins at (828) 227-7264 or

Cherokee Youth Center participant Kendall Toineeta (left) works with WCU student Lydia Poetker in Cherokee through the SMART program.

Cherokee Youth Center participant Kendall Toineeta (left) works with WCU student Lydia Poetker in Cherokee through the SMART program.