Caring for “Family” for 40 years
It is one of the toughest choices Gail Burshiem says she’s ever had to make — listen to what her body is telling her, or come back to manage the Canteen at Flandreau Indian School for another year.
The Canteen takes a lot of work, a lot of lifting and a lot of cleaning as it’s where students spend time after class, on weekends, and any holiday during the school year. They come for a snack, or simply to socialize and relax. Burshiem works hard to offer the kids a place of refuge, a place to celebrate, dance or play pool, and to offer a unique space to build a community.
After all, the young Native students that attend FIS from all over the country call our local boarding school home for nine months out of the year — it is important, she knows, they connect almost like they are a family.
The Canteen is a critical resource.
But after 40 years on the job, Burshiem knows that it’s time she allows someone else the opportunity.
“It’s a hard decision, but I’m just ready,” she told the Moody County Enterprise this past week during her last afternoon shift at FIS. She had been diligently cleaning the Canteen since students left for the summer only days earlier.
Burshiem came into her role at FIS through Berle Johnson, her softball coach when she was just a teenager herself. Burl, his wife, and her brother Derek, who also worked at the school, encouraged her to apply for a Recreation Assistant early on in her career. That was in 1983.
She’s been at FIS ever since. She took over as manager of the Canteen in 1995.
“My schedule was like a swing-shift. We’ve had dances, pool tournaments, bingo, Halloween, Christmas, Easter, I just hid 500 eggs. There are just different activities that I do for them… You know, you listen to their stories and their home life and you just get to know them like your own kids. It’s just hard. That’s the hardest part. I have one girl, she just keeps saying, ‘Gina, please don’t leave me.’
Burshiem, with tears in her eyes, said that she could have retired seven years ago. She’s wanted to come back each year that she has. She loves that school. The kids, for the most part, love FIS as well and are grateful for Bursheim, the experience and the home away from home.
Living locally, she’s grateful she’ll easily be able to check in routinely and stay in touch.
“Boarding school experience is way different from when my grandfather was in — they were beaten, forced to forget their language. Now, it’s the best experience of their life when they come up here. That’s the most rewarding thing, seeing the kids smile and laugh.”