Amidst more than three dozen Citizen Potawatomi Nation commercial enterprises and governmental programs are hundreds of Tribal members who work for their Nation. Amongst those are team members such as the Citizen Potawatomi Community Development Corporation’s TaRena Reece, a marketing and facilities manager who has a diverse set of professional experiences under her belt prior to working for the CPCDC.
Staying close to home
Reece has a unique background compared to many fellow Citizen Potawatomi; she was born on the Nation’s property in the old Mission Hill Hospital. Her father’s Potawatomi ancestors — from the Navarre-Melot families — are from the Wanette area. Reece grew up in Tecumseh, never far from the place where she was born.
Like many, Reece’s family knew they were descendants of Potawatomi, but they were far removed from what some could describe as a “traditional” upbringing. She was enrolled as a Tribal citizen at the age of 7 or 8, when her mother also enrolled her younger sister.
“I grew up knowing I was Native,” Reece said. “But I didn’t learn a lot about my heritage until my late teen, early adult years. That’s when my sister and I started asking a lot of questions.”
Reece credits her first job, working with current CPN Workforce Development & Social Services Director Carol Clay-Levi, as the main opportunity to learn about her Potawatomi heritage. Enrolled in a program at the then-named employment and training department, Reece used the experience to prepare for nursing school as an opportunity to learn more about her Tribe.
After graduating from Oak Grove Christian Academy in 1995, Reece enrolled at Oklahoma Baptist University.
“Having come from a small private school, I had some catch up to do in learning from a lecture setting model. I was too young to attend state schools after graduating high school, so it was a learning curve at OBU,” she said.
She eventually transferred to Seminole State College, where she prepared to be a nurse. While she enjoyed her time there, family circumstances required she move to Florida as her parents took charge of a church there. Three weeks shy of completing the semester, she withdrew from school and the nursing program.
“Life happens,” Reece said.
After six months, the family moved back to Oklahoma and she found herself wanting to serve others.
“I’m a people helper,” Reece said of her desire to enter the medical field. “I was a science nerd, and while nursing didn’t end up being a path I took, I started doing massage.”
Starting massage school in 2001, she worked in the sector for almost five years.
“I loved what I did — absolutely loved it,” Reece said. “I had a thriving practice; I enjoyed helping people; and I was still in health care. But my hands started to break down.”
She specialized in deep tissue massages, which can result in extreme physical demands on the therapist. A combination of her intensive work habits and the strain from offering the best service possible shortened her career.
“I didn’t know how to slow down. You know, people would come in, and they’re paying good money. I wanted to provide them good services and not make them come back for 20 trips,” she said.
Having to leave the field for her own health, Reece took on a job with the Nation. Not fully sure of what career paths were out there, she ended up in the formerly named CPN Employment and Training as a receptionist.
“There were some challenging people and situations that came in the door I had to deal with as the receptionist,” she said. “But it was always busy, and it was working towards a mission where we were helping people.”
Reece credits her ability to find new jobs that focus on helping those in need with a trait she got from her grandmother. Reece tells of a funeral during the winter when her grandmother noticed another attendee did not have a coat on despite the frigid temperatures outside.
“Grandma gave her sweater to the lady and then turned to me and asked that I give my coat to the lady’s little girl. Grandma was always helping people, even if she went without. I’m just a people helper, that’s where I learned it from.”
Reece eventually married and had a child, and she took time away to be a stay-at-home mom. Having a little one is not easy, but Reece and her husband had been foster parents for children since early in their marriage. Describing it as one of the toughest assignments she ever undertook, Reece admitted the challenges also allowed them to help those children at some of the most vulnerable times in their lives.
A back injury left her husband unable to work for a time, so Reece returned to CPN and accepted a position at FireLake Discount Foods as a cashier.
“We needed an income, and living off the system isn’t any fun,” she said. “I was at the store over a year, and it was actually a very good experience. They were really good with my schedule having a young son, and as an introvert, it helped me get out of my shell and have constant conversations with customers.”
She transitioned that customer service experience into a position as a receptionist at the Citizen Potawatomi Community Development Corporation. Every office has a staff member who, likely more than they know, is the glue that helps hold together the day-to-day tasks while allowing the rest of the staff to focus on their core missions. Reece started by answering phones and quickly began to fulfill many administrative duties. She became a mainstay in the office and of its mission.
At the encouragement of her colleagues, she began assisting on marketing and communications work. CEO Shane Jett encouraged her as a Tribal member to consider going back to school to finish her degree.
Reece took advantage of CPN’s full-tuition scholarship at St. Gregory’s University. In 2016, she was amongst the first four CPN graduates to utilize it, completing her bachelor’s degree in business before the college closed in 2017.
Her current career is different from what she thought it would be when she first stepped on campus at OBU, the skills and interests she has in telling stories are nothing new.
“I’ve been playing with words since I was young,” she said. “Writing songs, writing poetry, writing short stories … words are fascinating to me.”
Reece put those skills to work at the CPCDC. Today she maintains the informational side of the organization’s website at cpcdc.org and writes marketing pieces featuring Native American-owned businesses who use the CPCDC for commercial lending. However, her forays into online marketing are not her first experience exploring the sector.
Coming from a smaller denomination — Pentecostal Holiness — Reece described a problem-solving tactic she undertook during her college years.
“In our church circles, 20 years ago, people got married a lot younger than they do today,” Reece said. “I wasn’t married, and I began to notice this social gap where once you and your friends were as thick as glue, but they marry and suddenly move on to other things.”
Reece learned some basic coding and design concepts, building a singles site for members of Pentecostal Holiness community. It was just her, a PC, and a lot of starts and stops, or as she described it, “just nerding out in front of a computer until I got it right.
“It never became very big, but it accomplished its goal of bringing an awareness to the singles community in our churches that we never really had before,” Reece said. “It was really more for friend making than matchmaking because there was this gap where singles got left out and my goal was to bridge that gap.”
It is the skills learned during this experience that Reece used redesigning the CPCDC’s website.
“I never dreamed I would ever use my experience with that project for something so important for a program which helps so many people,” she said.
Her initiative and acceptance for challenges have come to fruition for Reece, who today is the CPCDC’s marketing and facilities manager. In addition to the day-to-day upkeep of their new office along S. Gordon Cooper Drive, Reece organizes and produces the Oklahoma Indian Nations Directory. A legacy project from CEO Shane Jett’s time in the Oklahoma Legislature, Reece updates it and helps produce the bi-annual book listing all the information about Oklahoma’s 39 tribal nations, including elected tribal government officials, state and county officials and much more.
The CPCDC finances, promotes, educates, and inspires the entrepreneurial growth, economic opportunity, and financial well-being of the Citizen Potawatomi Nation Tribal Community and other under-served Native populations. Serving Native-owned businesses nationwide, the organization provides a wide variety of services including commercial lending, business development and financial awareness education. To learn more visit cpcdc.org or call 405-878-4697.