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Community foundation making a difference in people’s lives

Les Vonkeman is diversity officer for Lethbridge Police Service.

Les Vonkeman lost touch with his Indigenous heritage when he was caught in the infamous Sixties Scoop.
The Sixties Scoop saw the government take Indigenous children from their families and place them in foster homes.
In Vonkeman’s case, he grew up in Dutch family in a Dutch community with five blonde-haired, blue-eyed sisters.
While Vonkeman won’t disparage his upbringing, it did come with a cost.
“It left me with limited knowledge of my own heritage,” Vonkeman said.
Vonkeman began a journey of cultural discovery 18 years ago as a front-line officer with Lethbridge Police Service, where he encountered many Indigenous people.
Eight years ago, Vonkeman was appointed diversity officer for the police department.
“This was the start of a life-changing education for me,” Vonkeman said.
Blackfoot elders showed Vonkeman the beauty of his culture, and now he helps others gain the same knowledge.
With funding from the Community Foundation of Lethbridge and Southwestern Alberta, Vonkeman started a Blackfoot tipi camp.
Held in April on the Blood Reserve, the tipi camp introduces non-Indigenous people — many of them business and community leaders — to the Blackfoot culture.
Participants help build the camp, take part in a pipe ceremony, visit sacred sites, hear from Blackfoot elders, attend a sweat lodge ceremony and are treated to drumming and dancing.
Vonkeman received positive response from participants, and is hopeful more people take part.
“I hope you all take intentional steps to learn more about the community around you,” Vonkeman said. “There is too much adversity in our world today and not enough love for our fellow man.”
Vonkeman’s program was one of the success stories shared as the foundation released its Vital Signs report at its office in Lethbridge.

Executive director Charleen Davidson, who termed Vital Signs an annual community check-up, said the report guides the work of the foundation by helping to identify needs.
“Vital Signs can help us build better communities,” Davidson said.
Davidson praised the work of the Vital Signs committee, of which Ronda Reach of Fort Macleod is the chair.
The committee uses local sources and data of communities across southwestern Alberta to measure their well-being.
That information is used by the foundation to approve grants, advise donors of needs and identify societal trends.
Davidson said the Vital Signs report examines quality of life in the areas of community connections, cultural life, environment, healthy communities, life-long learning and living standards.
Jane Brenner, executive director of the Taber and District Community Adult Learning Association, became emotional as she spoke of the impact her group’s programs had on people, thanks in part to funding from the foundation.
Brenner told the audience her association started a program in which Low German Mennonite parents were taught to read along with their young children.
The 20-week program teaches English, literacy and numeracy skills and oral communication to those parents, whose formal education ends at the age of 12.
Brenner told of a child who said she likes her mother more because the woman is happier and talks to her child more since she started school.
Branner told of another man from the local Mennonite community who got involved in a program, learned to read and write and to set goals.
“He came into our program and he was just excited about learning,” Brenner said.
The man went on to graduate from Lethbridge College and start his own business.
Brenner thanked the community foundation for helping to make that happen.
“Those are some of the difference the community foundation is helping us to make as an organization,” Brenner said.
Highlights from the Vital Signs report include:

  • Voter turnout in the 2017 municipal election was higher in Claresholm, Coaldale, Fort Macleod, Pincher Creek and Raymond than in 2013.
  • English is the primary language for 81 per cent of people in southwestern Alberta.
  • Eighty-five per cent of the population has graduated from high school and 56 per cent has gone on to post-secondary.
  • Nine per cent of the population has Indigenous origins.
  • Thirteen per cent of people are immigrants, of which three per cent came in the last five years.
  • The 21 wind farms and 525 turbines in southwestern Alberta generate 825 megawatts of energy.
  • Eight hydroelectric stations generate 96 megawatts of energy.
  • 32.4 per cent of people in southwestern Alberta are obese, compared to 27.7 per cent in Alberta and 26.3 per cent in Canada.
  • 20.3 per cent of the population in southwestern Alberta are smokers, compared to 18.4 per cent in Alberta and 17.4 per cent in Canada.
  • The supervised consumption site in Lethbridge has had about 15,000 visits since it opened in February.
  • The average cost of a single patient hospital stay at Chinook Regional Hospital is $7,557.
  • 11.6 per cent of people worried at some point about food insecurity.
  • Rural RCMP detachments in southwestern Alberta reported 6,973 violations in 2016, an increase of 777 from 2015.
  • The average age of people in southwestern Alberta is 39.5 years, with seniors making up 16 per cent of the population.