Catholic Herald staff
Each year, the Diocese of Superior nominates one person for Catholic Extension’s Lumen Christi Award.
This “Light of Christ” must be someone who serves the poor in mission dioceses, working to transform lives and communities and ignite change.
This year’s nominee, Bluette Puchner, has served the poor in many ways – as a foster parent; by serving on the board of directors for the Diocese of Superior’s Catholic Charities Bureau; and in spearheading an effort to start a S.T.R.I.V.E. program to mentor teens struggling in school, among other projects.
But Puchner’s passion – a project she keeps coming back to – was working as a guardian ad litem in the tribal courts of the St. Croix Band of Ojibwe. Although she no longer serves in that capacity, she continues to communicate with members of the struggling tribe; were Puchner to receive the Lumen Christi Award, she said she would spend the $25,000 grant working with the tribal council to create a program to confront one of the tribe’s most pressing problems – addiction.
Puchner grew up in Minneapolis, where she lived until she left for the University of Washington in Seattle. She returned to the Cities after four years, married and had three sons, the oldest of whom passed away in 2013. She has three grandsons and one granddaughter. Hockey is a favorite family pastime.
“I spend as much time with them as I possibly can,” she said of her grandchildren.
Puchner loves children. She first worked in special education, and then stayed home to raise her sons. When she was ready to return to the workforce, she earned a certification in project management from UW-Madison and worked in project management for the rest of her career.
“I loved what I did, and I loved the people I worked with,” she added. She took pride in being the first woman hired in her group, in making her way through a male-dominated field.
While they were in the Cities, she and her husband also served as foster parents in Hennepin County. In 12 years, they fostered more than 20 children.
“My passion has always been working with kids, or working for kids,” Puchner said.
In 1999, Puchner’s husband, William, died after a nearly three-year struggle with cancer.
She had been traveling all over the country and beyond for work, and she decided to move from the Cities to her family’s lake home in Webster, in the Diocese of Superior. She also earned certification in life coaching in 2002.
Retired from her job in 2014, Puchner had sought ways to get involved in her community. She joined the Chamber and the Rotary, took the course to become a Lay Leader of Prayer at her parish, Our Lady of Perpetual Help in Danbury, and started helping out with Koinonia retreats. She grew into leadership roles with both programs, and now chairs the Koinonia program and is the Diocese of Superior’s lay ministry enrichment coordinator, a role that “keeps me grounded and involved in the things that I love,” she said.
Through her membership with the local Rotary Club, Puchner began mentoring struggling high school students through the S.T.R.I.V.E. program, an acronym for Students Taking Renewed Interest in the Value of Education. The program pairs teens having limited success in the classroom – due to home problems, self-esteem or motivation issues, poor attendance or some other factor – with adult mentors who help guide them toward graduation.
“It’s just an amazing program,” she said. She’s currently working with a junior and a senior; students need 26 credits to graduate, and when she started working with the junior, he only had one. He now has 13.5. Her senior mentee had four credits when they met, and he’s now going to graduate.
“They need someone who cares,” she explained.
The school counselor in Webster once said to her, “‘Your kids always graduate. How do you do it?’”
“I have lots of experience with tough love,” Puchner told her. A lot of kids have a lot of pain, and “whatever I can do to alleviate some of that pain, I’m doing it.”
Guardian ad litem
In March 2016, Puchner began her work as a guardian ad litem with the St. Croix tribal court. Her role was to be an advocate for children, to investigate, to make home visits and conduct interviews and ensure each child’s best interest was at the heart of court proceedings.
The job put her in contact with kids, with families, with elders. She was charged with ensuring children’s needs were being met – legally, materially, emotionally – and reporting back to the court.
“No two days were ever the same,” she said of the job. Sometimes she was visiting incarcerated parents or kids in juvenile detention. Always she was communicating with children and their parents, learning about their way of life.
She encountered Native culture for the first time – the richness of tradition, the history, the spirituality – and was immersed in it.
“That became a deeply meaningful experience for me,” she said.
She also saw great need, especially in what would become a transitional time for the tribe.
In May, tribal council members – the leaders of the tribe – were charged with embezzling $1.5 million in casino earnings. As the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel reported in a May 13 article, the St. Croix – with a population of around 1,000, mostly living in Burnett County – approached the National Indian Gaming Commission to report their deep impoverishment.
Tribal members were quoted as telling the commission, “‘it is impossible to overstate the precariousness of the tribe’s current financial situation.’”
Puchner has seen this poverty firsthand, through calls from members in need of groceries between food pantry distributions or gas money to get to medical appointments. Addiction to alcohol and drugs has also taken its toll, as it has in many rural communities; she told the tribal council, “If you don’t get your arms around this [addiction problem], in ten years, you aren’t going to have a tribe.”
Elders are dying off, she said. Soon there will be no one left to teach their traditions.
She’s had more than one teenager tell her, “If I’m drunk, I don’t have to worry about what’s going on at home.”
Puchner’s faith is never far from her mind. Some of the kids she’s worked with are Catholic, she said, but she doesn’t think any of them have been in religious education. She always promises anyone in distress that she will pray to their Creator.
She recounted one story: A couple, unmarried and heavily into drugs, was having a baby. The woman prematurely delivered an addicted baby, and Puchner visited the mother and her doctor in Marshfield. When she was at Mass at her parish in Danbury, the father came in, ran to her, and said, “‘I came to pray with you.’”
Puchner was filled with joy.
“They strongly, strongly adhere to their Native traditions,” she added. “If they show up, I’m happy.”
Puchner’s role as guardian ad litem with the tribal court ended in August, but she continues to serve as a resource for anyone who calls. Before she left, she told the tribal council and the court that she would always respond to any calls she got from a parent or a child. Many months later, they still call.
“They’re still in my life, and I’m grateful for that,” she said.
She continues to think about the St. Croix, about how she could help them. Puchner is a member of the Catholic Charities Bureau’s board of directors; although the organization funds many worthy causes throughout the diocese – from healthcare to housing for the elderly to services for the intellectually disabled – very little of that money goes to the tribes, she said.
She fears the $5.5 million fine assessed against the St. Croix by the National Indian Gaming Commission – on top of the already misappropriated $1.5 million – will further impoverish members by garnishing what may be the sole source of income for some – their casino dividend check.
Addiction is another concern.
“Right now, they don’t have anybody that is running their rehab program,” she said. With the proper resources, “I would have no problem going to them [the new tribal council members] and saying ‘Hey, let’s get this grant going and see what we can get done with these addictions.’”
The situation breaks her heart.
“I’m on my knees every morning, praying for this country and praying for the kids of this country, because that’s our future,” she said.