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School kookum program adds extra layer of support, love for Thompson, Man., children

A ringing chorus of, “Hi Kookum” greets Valerie Parker every day in her classroom at a Thompson, Man., elementary school, followed by hugs from the students who come by for a visit at recess.

“I have a lot of grandchildren here,” she said with a laugh on Friday.

Parker is a kookum, a Cree word for grandmother, at Juniper Elementary School. She is neither a teacher nor a counsellor, but does a little bit of both of those roles.

All of her teachings are rooted in her Cree heritage and culture, from the tea she brews of cedar, wegus and chaga, to the bannock she fries, to the crafts she makes with the kids who come by.

“They come here and they cook, baking. I teach them sewing, medicines, crafts, the teachings, the seven teachings,” Parker said.

A woman wearing glasses and a blue shirt with flowers on it stands in front of a number of ribbon skirts and shirts.
Valerie Parker is the kookum at Juniper Elementary School in Thompson, Man. She says she loves being a kookum to her four grandchildren at the school, as well as their many students. (Rachel Bergen/CBC)

One girl, 14, who is in foster care and can’t be named, comes by nearly every day to visit her kookum, and wanted to make a fancy shawl and regalia to dance in.

Over the course of a school year they sewed the regalia, including moccasins, for the girl to wear, Parker said.

“She’s basically like my own mom to me. It’s more comfortable and it’s more safe here than my boring class,” the 14-year-old said.

Parker sees herself as a safe person for the children to come and talk to.

Moccasins and little vials are seen on top of brightly coloured fabric laid out across a table. Above, stuffed animals are perched on a shelf.
Valerie Parker offers traditional medicines and ointments to children who come by her room. She also offers them tea and helps them to make regalia. (Rachel Bergen/CBC)

“They need someone to come and comfort them, and they never want to go to anyone else, but they come to me and get that comforting,” she said.

Parker is one of two self-titled kookums in northern Manitoba’s Mystery Lake School Division who are a part of the Mino Pimatisiwin program, which means the good life, according to co-superintendent Lorie Henderson.

“We’re looking for balance for our kids to have the good life,” she said.

Roughly 60 per cent of children in the division are Indigenous, Henderson said, so the program is a way to help them not only connect with their culture, but also receive support if they need a little extra.

“We see our kids are coming to school and not necessarily are the kids needing to see a counselor. They’re not necessarily needing a diagnosis, they’re just needing somewhere where they can have space, they can have support, they can learn about some of some of our culture,” Henderson said.

That’s where the kookums come in.

Four children hold up stuffed animals in a classroom with woman in glasses and white hair. In the background is an orange flag that says, "Every Child Matters."
Shelley Cook (back right) stands among some students at Burntwood School who come to visit her and learn about Indigenous culture and history. She also offers comfort when the kids are having a tough time. (Rachel Bergen/CBC)

Shelley Cook is Parker’s counterpart at Burntwood Elementary School on the other side of Thompson.

Cook, who is not Indigenous but has been adopted into her husband’s community of Nisichawayasihk Cree Nation, offers comfort and support for the children who come into her classroom.

A trained teacher, Cook uses a lot of the same skills she learned in a classroom in her role as kookum, but says her current role is unique.

“If somebody needs a smudge, they could come see me. We can kind of give them a new start on their day, or if they’ve got something that’s heavy on their heart, I have the time to listen,” she said.

“I know that residential school was a very unkind place to be and that some of our parents had to experience that, and so one of my major pieces is trying to be kind to the children and making them understand how valuable and special they are.”

A woman with white hair kneels next to a little boy who is writing numbers on a little white board.
Kookum Shelley Cook checks in on a student at Burntwood Elementary School in Thompson. (Rachel Bergen/CBC)

The kids who interact with Cook learn to sing in Cree, play with puppets and stuffed animals, all the while learning about the traditional seven teachings.

Eight-year-old Emersyn Wickdahl says when she comes to visit her kookum it means it’s going to be a good day because she loves visiting.

“I just think it’s really fun to be here,” Emma Lefevere, nine, added.

Henderson says the division is seeking to recruit other grandparent figures to work in other schools in the area.

But Cook hopes all divisions will consider their program.

“I’m pretty sure that if all the schools could have the benefit of having a grandma around, I think it would enhance their school,” she said.

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