Dionna is one of the rare residents who asked to come to Dakota Boys and Girls Ranch. After two suicide attempts and a stay at the Child and Adolescent Partial Hospitalization Program (CAPH) in Minot, Dionna decided it was time to focus on herself. It is difficult to find the courage and self-awareness to ask for help when all seems hopeless. It is even more remarkable to see that courage in a child. At age 17, with the support of her forever parents, who lovingly adopted Dionna and her brothers, Dionna came to the doors of the Ranch to, "try to get better."
Like many Ranch children, Dionna had a childhood filled with trauma.
"When I was five, I think during Christmas, my dad beat my mom up real bad and she almost died," Dionna said. "I was right in between them trying to help my mom. She somehow got to the phone to call the police. Then my dad went to prison and my mom grew more and more into doing drugs and drinking."
Because her mom was gone a lot, five-year-old Dionna cared for her two younger brothers. "Even though I was close to their age, I was basically their mom," Dionna said. "We didn't have that much food and water, Mom never paid the bills, and Social Services kept coming through to check the house."
Eventually, Dionna and her brothers were removed from the home and placed in foster care. A loving foster family welcomed the three of them into their family, and later, formally adopted them.
But the trauma they had experienced had already left its mark. Dionna was a quiet kid. She had trouble focusing in school and said early speech problems affected her learning. "I really didn't talk at all," she said. "At school, if someone talked about family, or we had to give cards to our moms or dads, I would get really emotional."
As a teenager, Dionna struggled. She was depressed, suffering from flashbacks of her Dad beating her Mom, and would cut herself to relieve the emotional pain.
At age 17, Dionna decided to make some changes. "I really wanted to better myself and be someone better than my birth parents. I'm Native, and I want to be something good. I want to go back there to tell them they can change. No matter what happens, they just have to keep trying and not give up."
Dionna's case manager, Katie Boucher, said Dionna came to treatment ready to make changes. "She talked about truly wanting things to be different. When she first came to the Ranch, whenever we reviewed any concerns or struggles, Dionna would fall apart. She beat herself up about any little thing she did wrong, despite Ranch staff telling her that mistakes happen, and it is OK," Katie said.
"By discharge, she was able to celebrate small victories for herself. She consistently became her own cheerleader, which is a skill many adults haven't mastered, myself included!"
One of the most important things Dionna learned at the Ranch was to see things from the other person's point of view. "I was so focused on myself. Everything was about me. I learned that if someone is being mean to you, it's probably because something is going on in their life, or because they are having a bad day. It's not you."
Her Ranch counselor, Amber Nelson, also helped Dionna learn how to work through a flashback. "She would talk me through it. 'Remember where you are,' Amber would say. 'You're not in a place where you are sinking right at the moment. You're in a safe spot.' I just had to think about where I was, that I was safe, and that I wasn't going anywhere."
Dionna is very goal-oriented—and when she learned about Job Corps, she decided she wanted that to be her next step. Once again, she took control of her own destiny. She asked for the forms she needed and applied. When she was invited to Job Corps for an interview, Dionna asked Katie to help her prepare. Katie gave her some sample questions and she reviewed and practiced until she was ready.
"When we got to the interview, she totally blew me away," Katie said. "She identified her strengths and needs, talked about her history, and told the interviewer why she thought Job Corps was a good fit. Mid-interview, the admissions coordinator stopped her and asked if she knew how outstanding she was! He told us he rarely gets a candidate who comes in as prepared and committed to success as Dionna. I would love to say I helped her get into Job Corps, but it was all her."
Dionna finished her final year of high school at Job Corps and graduated in May. It wasn't easy—Dionna said it was difficult for her to be around so many kids her own age. "Talking to a lot of people was a little hard for me," she said.
But she remained determined and focused and used the things she learned at the Ranch to make it through the year.
This summer, Dionna reached out to Katie when she realized she was backsliding after discontinuing her psychiatric medication. Katie talked through her options and walked her through the steps to make an appointment. Dionna said Dr. Wayne Martinsen, Psychiatrist and Medical Director at the Ranch, was a provider she felt comfortable with, so she reached out to him and is now seeing him for follow-up and medication management through Dakota Family Services, the outpatient behavioral health clinic founded by the Ranch.
Dionna now has a new goal—to help other kids living in foster care. She is exploring her college options while working full-time and recently secured a second job providing before-school care to kids at a local daycare center. Between the two jobs and her determination to find grant and scholarship opportunities, Dionna is putting together the pieces so she can attend college and study to become a social worker.
Katie's ultimate hope for Dionna is that she continues to reach for her dreams.
"I hope she continues to be goal-oriented and when setbacks occur, because they inevitably will, that she can pull from her past experiences to overcome them as gracefully as she has thus far," Katie said. "This kid is honestly my happy thought when days get rough. She has defied so many odds and just keeps on keeping on. She is an incredible kid and is determined to beat the odds."
This article was originally published in Ranch Voice: Summer 2019.
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