Returning Home: Red Cloud Indian School Welcomes Back Mike Welch

posted April 15, 2016 

From 1,800 miles away Mike Welch could hear the drumming all along. He could feel the vibrations from soft steps as the children danced to the drumbeats. He could smell the sweet dust in the air - the kind that can only come from the wide open plains of the Midwest. And in his heart knew he must return home.

This fall Mike and his wife Bridget will do just that: Bridget will teach at Red Cloud Elementary School and Mike has been hired to serve as Red Cloud Indian School’s Vice President for Institutional Development-Special Assistant to the President, a position that will aid President Fr. George Winzenburg, S.J. in advancing national partnerships and support around the country.

Mike first arrived to the Pine Ridge Reservation to volunteer at Red Cloud Indian School in 1982. For two years he served as the director of religious education and later took on the role of youth minister in the K-12 school system, serving across the reservation. Mike returned in 1990 to teach and help write the school’s religious education curriculum, and again in 1995 to serve as the Director of Development in the Advancement Office. Having met and married his wife Bridget, also a volunteer, they began a family in their time on the reservation and their three oldest children attended the school for a few years before the family returned to the east coast to be closer to relatives. But Mike and Bridget have always felt called to return.

“The Pine Ridge Reservation is a life transforming place filled with people who touched our lives and our hearts,” Mike shared from his home in Massachusetts. “We have learned so much about life and about living from the Lakota people. Our coming to Red Cloud at this time is our small way of giving back to a culture which has given us so much.”

In the time since Mike’s departure from the reservation, the school has seen unprecedented growth, advancing its programming in Lakota language and STEM fields, developing lay leadership formation in its pastoral efforts, planning and surpassing its first capital campaign goals, and most recently, designing a unique, community-curated art exhibit - the Horse Nation Exhibition - to be on display this fall. These efforts, coupled with unprecedented student achievements, are what finally tipped the balance for Mike.

“We are so proud to see some former students now in leadership positions at the school and in parishes around the reservation,” said Mike. “Red Cloud is an integral partner in helping to break the cycle of poverty on the Pine Ridge by providing an education that helps empower people to live lives that God desires. The school, through recent strategic planning, is preparing itself for the next phase in its evolution - the case for Red Cloud is strong.”

Mike’s experience in project leadership and development - along with his close ties to the Red Cloud community - are what made him an obvious choice for the role in the mind of Fr. Winzenburg. “At St. John’s High School Mike served as Headmaster and spearheaded the institution’s most recent multi-million dollar capital campaign and leading with the kind of foresight that will leave the school at its strongest. That’s the kind of leadership we have and can now expand upon with our team here at Red Cloud - one that brings experience, passion, and commitment to mission.”

Mike’s return to the Pine Ridge reservation is not wholly business related, however. Two of his sons are currently a part of Red Cloud’s volunteer teaching program and his daughter Liz, having also served the school in the same way, has begun work for another Pine Ridge nonprofit.

“We always dreamed about coming back, never truly knowing if that would be a reality,” Mike shared. “We are so proud that three of our children have volunteered at the school and to now have the flexibility in our lives to be geographically closer to them and our Lakota relatives is a real blessing.”

Mike’s new position will see him joining Fr. Winzenburg and others in an effort to expand the partnerships and strategic initiatives the school requires to maintain its position as a leader in Native education. “We are one of the most successful K-12 educational institutions educating Native students in the country,” said Fr. Winzenburg. “Yet we cannot allow our successes to date to be enough. Our students and community members are teeming with potential. We must continue to strengthen ourselves so that they, in turn, can continue to thrive in new and innovative ways.”

In the last 15 years alone, more than 95% of graduates of the school have gone on to postsecondary opportunities at universities and vo tech schools around the country and served in the military. Acceptances from Creighton University, Harvard University, the University of South Dakota and more continue to roll in for this year’s senior class. The school is a leader in fostering future Gates Millennium Scholars, with 67 to date. Student leadership and service are at a high.

That is just the type of success that has inspired Mike to return.

“The need for the life transforming nature of a Red Cloud education has never been greater. Its mission is so important; the case is clear. We are honored to be a part of ensuring the future of a place that means so much to us, and to so many on the reservation.”

For more information visit:
Call: Fr. George Winzenburg, S.J. at (605) 867-5491


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Photo Courtesy St. John's High School.