Citizen Potawatomi Nation FireLodge Children & Family Services Director Ashlee May bases her career on servant leadership. She held several roles across the Nation, including positions at FireLake Discount Foods and House of Hope, before accepting her current role as director of CPN’s Indian Child Welfare department.
“I’ve always known that I wanted to be a social worker, and I wanted to help families and children,” May said. “Just having that knack and urge that God put me on this earth to be a social worker — I’ve never really wanted to be anything else.”
May joined the CPN workforce as a 16-year-old at FireLake Discount Foods. After graduating high school, she accepted two Tribal internships within the domestic violence and ICW departments during college.
“I feel so privileged that I got to do both of those internships. A lot of fellow students didn’t have that opportunity, especially that first one that I did in domestic violence,” May said. “I really feel like it helped me be more definite in my decision and be able to say. ‘Social work is for me.’ I always lingered on that line of being a domestic violence worker and being in child welfare. Getting those two experiences before I was actually an employee somewhere allowed me to weigh my options.”
May accepted a full-time position with the Nation as a domestic violence advocate in 2013. She served the House of Hope — CPN’s domestic violence department — in several capacities until December 2018 when she transferred to ICW as an administrative officer.
“I still have a little bit of that advocacy side of me now, even as a child welfare worker, even though they’re completely two different jobs. I am so grateful that I had those opportunities,” she said.
Shortly after college, May worked for the State of Oklahoma, serving children and their families through the Department of Human Services. Although she enjoyed the experience DHS provided, the large nature of the department and its service area makes May appreciative of the Nation’s approach to assisting Native Americans in need. Having almost all facilities and Tribal departments within a small area shows CPN’s dedication to aiding clients and helps remove some potential barriers to success.
“What we can offer Tribal members is amazing. Being able to do everything in-house here, that is a huge, huge benefit,” May said. “It can really help families if they take advantage of that, no matter if they are a victim of domestic violence or if they’re having issues with child welfare — everything is really a one-stop-shop because we have behavioral health, we have workforce, the domestic violence program, the child welfare program and more.”
The close-knit environment at CPN across all departments means May and her team can entrust clients will receive the highest level of care.
“We have to remember that most of the time, we’re meeting these people on one of the worst days of their lives; whether they’ve been a victim of domestic violence or whether their children have been brought into care for some reason,” May explained. “We have to treat that with sensitivity, and being able to say, ‘I know this person will take care of you. Let me refer you to them,’ is really nice for them to hear.”
For some, sharing traumatic experiences and stories multiple times to multiple agencies causes extra stress. The robust resources CPN provides decreases that number while still offering individualized care.
“I’ve been with victims of domestic violence, and I’ve been with our children when they’re going through these hard times, and just being able to help them not relive it, that’s really nice to us,” May said.
However, serving CPN members and children across the nation remains a key component of CPN’s ICW department, and May and her team strive to keep up-to-date on potential assistance wherever CPN members reside.
“We always try to find tribal resources that are close to them so that they can go and maybe get free health care or something that can help take that monetary burden off of them,” she said.
The ICW department recently began sending CPN foster care children boxes filled with information on their Potawatomi heritage. The packets provide foster families the opportunity to teach CPN foster children about their culture with information on Tribal history, programming, language resources and more.
“It just allows them to feel like they matter,” May explained. “They want to read about it, you know, because some of those out-of-state schools, they’re not taught any Native American history. So they literally know nothing. We try to send them these boxes, and we’ve gotten amazing feedback.”
Departmental achievements and goals
“I feel incredibly blessed and honored that administration and Janet Draper, the previous ICW director, really allowed me to be such a huge part in rebuilding the ICW team,” May said. “It gives me chills still to think about that. Being the director is actually my dream job, so being able to be a part of this and just see this department get to where it is today, sometimes all I can say is, ‘Wow.’”
Since accepting the role, May has recruited employees with a vast array of skills and numerous years of on-the-job training.
“They all just bring this invaluable experience to the table that I think is so amazing,” May said.
She strives to always be available to her staff, lending aid when and where needed while also continuing to represent CPN children in court, process casework, attend home visits and more.
“I never want to sit behind a desk all day, so I still try to be involved,” May said.
In addition to her day-to-day work, May regularly reminds her employees of how important their work and efforts are to Potawatomi children and families.
“This is a really hard job — a very hard job. We are making decisions for other people — for other families, for our children,” May said. “Sometimes it can be a very stressful situation, but I always tell them and I tell myself, ‘We’re doing the right thing, and that’s all we can do.’”
While some days are difficult, helping improve family dynamics and providing oversight and care for CPN foster children nationwide inspires each ICW staff member.
“We want our clients to know that the Tribe is here for you,” May said. “You’re a member of this Tribe, and we care about you.”
For more information about FireLodge Children & Family Services, call 405-878-4831 or visit potawatomi.org/firelodge.