Home-grown health

UND Nursing and RAIN program alums renovate former school bus garage into diabetes wellness center on Spirit Lake reservation

Tracy Charboneau and Challsey (Lawrence) Scallon

Tracy Charboneau (left) and Challsey Scallon, UND College of Nursing & Professional Discipline alumnae and veterans of the Recruitment and Retention of American Indians into Nursing program (RAIN), recently pulled off a big idea when they cut the ribbon on a brand new $1.2 million wellness center dedicated to helping those on the Spirit Lake Sioux reservation stricken with Type I and II diabetes. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

ST. MICHAEL, N.D. — Tracy Charboneau couldn’t stand the thought of one day becoming a public health nurse.

Challsey (Lawrence) Scallon wanted nothing else.

There was probably a little fate involved when the two UND College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines alumnae from the Spirit Lake Sioux Nation decided to combine their talents and make a difference on their home reservation.

“I think we work really well together,” Charboneau said with a smile. “I come up with the ideas and (Scallon) carries them through.”

The two veterans of UND’s Recruitment and Retention of American Indians into Nursing program, or RAIN for short, recently pulled off a big idea when they cut the ribbon on a brand new $1.2 million wellness center dedicated to helping those on Spirit Lake stricken with Type I and II diabetes.

Charboneau and Scallon, currently enrolled in UND’s Advanced Public Health Nurse program (master’s level), played host to a grand opening ceremony at the new “Sacred Life Center” March 9 in the Spirit Lake community of St. Michael. The women worked with tribal officials and pursued grants to convert a decades-old two-story school bus garage into a modern-day wellness center, complete with an ADA compliant elevator, fitness area, examination rooms, offices as well as meeting and classroom space.

“We never really envisioned it could be as beautiful as it is right now,” Charboneau said. “We are so excited to get people in here and get going on teaching.”

More space

Charboneau and Scallon are now able to move their operation from Spirit Lake Nation’s main administrative headquarters, the “Blue Building” in Fort Totten, where they ran the Special Diabetes Program, to the spacious and well-equipped Sacred Life Center.

“We didn’t have room for education or anywhere for fitness or anything like that,” Charboneau said, “so this place was really needed because of the high rate of diabetes on the reservation.”

Scallon said the new wellness center will help augment the services provided by the only other diabetes-support program on the reservation at the Spirit Lake Health Center in Fort Totten.

Charboneau said that, unfortunately, the average age in which people are diagnosed with diabetes on the reservation is getting younger, as is the age for people who experience complications from diabetes such as the need for amputations or dialysis.

“What we are trying to do for those people who already have diabetes is help them manage it so they can live a longer, better-quality way of life,” she said. “And then we also want to prevent diabetes.”

Tracy Charboneau

Tracy Charboneau, director of A Sacred Life Center, a new wellness center dedicated to diabetes awareness and prevention on the Spirit Lake Sioux reservation, shows off the center’s storeroom. The room holds diabetes education supplies and other incentive and give-away items for diabetes health prevention. Photo by Jackie Lorentz.

Change of plans

Charboneau said she really wanted to be a labor and delivery nurse when she first enrolled in UND’s College of Nursing & Professional Disciplines. That changed suddenly when she got sick and diagnosed herself as having Type I diabetes. It forced her to take a break from school for one semester.

She eventually graduated with her bachelor’s degree, and while back home on the Spirit Lake reservation, she ran into the community’s health director who notified her of a job opening with the Special Diabetes Program.

“I just feel like things happen for a reason because, in my role, I can really relate to my patients,” Charboneau said. “I have the same struggles as them – the same everything.”

Scallon doesn’t have diabetes now but her parents and siblings do and she is high risk for it as well.  She said the public health arena is a perfect setting for her.

“I went into school knowing that I wanted to be a nurse but not knowing in what area,” Scallon said. “That is until I had my first public health class. I said ‘I could really see myself doing this.’

“I just love being out in the community.”

On our own

After considering a few different options on how they could use their grant money, Charboneau and Scallon got a tip from a former official in the Tribe’s planning department, Mary Cavanaugh.  Cavanaugh helped them identify the old bus garage in St. Michael as a good location for a renovation project. She also assisted with much of the construction planning and arranging for contractors.

Scallon said she’s excited to have a stand-alone facility with space for their needs. It also puts the Spirit Lake’s diabetes program on par with other tribal health centers across the Great Plains.

“I will be completely honest,” Scallon said. “It is a little scary. We started with only four offices in the Blue Building and now we’re in this beautiful two-story building.”

Charboneau added, “The way I describe it is that I feel like we just turned 18 and we’re about to move out on our own.”

Charboneau said she may have started out not wanting anything to do with public health nursing, but today she couldn’t imagine herself doing anything else.  She said UND and its nationally recognized RAIN program have played major roles in their success.

“I just think that UND gave us the foundation and the tools to succeed as leaders,” she said.

Scallon is set to graduate from UND in May with her Advanced Public Health Nurse degree. Charboneau is expected to do the same in May of 2018.