Native American Heritage + Philanthropy: Denise Harvey

I’m honored to share my story with you about the personal experiences that led me to a life in the world of philanthropy.

I was born to a mother who was born and raised on the Grand Ronde Reservation. She lived there all her life, until the age of 35, when the Tribe was terminated by the federal government in 1954. During the Indian Relocation Act, which encouraged Native Americans to leave their Tribal lands and assimilate into the general population of urban areas, she made the decision to leave her home.

Mom moved to the Bay Area of California in the late 1950s. She was poor and was a single mother with five children. I was born in the early 1960s and I grew up in Oakland, California. I really never knew anything different than what I was raised with, the kind of struggles of life. One of my siblings was developmentally disabled, a sister who was a few years older than me. My first exposure to nonprofit organizations was with the Special Olympics. As a young child and a teenager, I volunteered every year at the Special Olympics. I guess that was the start of volunteer work for me and getting involved in the philanthropic world.

At the age of 16, I became a single mom and raised four children on my own. My mom was very supportive during that process. I moved to Los Angeles as a young adult and began working full-time in the Emergency Room. I worked the night shift because I really couldn’t afford child care and it was more convenient. It allowed me to participate more with my children’s school work, school activities and sports.

I worked in the ER for 18 years, seeing all these different families from different walks of life, different ethnicities, different backgrounds, coming into the emergency room in, usually, somewhat of a traumatic needs situation. I saw several tragic situations and several with positive outcomes. But you take care of these people, and sometimes you have to be respectful of their cultural differences. In a medical setting everyone is treated equally and cared for Equally.

The reason I mention that is because in the philanthropic world, all of these nonprofit organizations are helping a variety of people with various individual needs. That’s one of the reasons I enjoy being on the board. I take a general interest in what these nonprofits are doing. And I think it’s because of these organizations that we have a better place to live. Without them, I think our country, our people, our local communities would be at a tremendous deficit. In the 1990s, my mom decided to return home to Grand Ronde. By this time, I was married and remained in California, raising my family.

In 2000, my son Ryan, who was 17 at the time, passed away due to a tragic accident at the Oregon Coast. This was a life-changing situation for our family. At the time, my husband was getting ready to retire from the Sheriff’s Department. My mom was aging and really wanted me to come home to Oregon and work for my Tribe. So when my husband retired, we decided to move back to Oregon and help care for my mom. And we did that for the last five years of her Life.

Once in Oregon, I went to work for my Tribe. I’ve been working for the Confederated Tribes of Grand Ronde for the past 20 years. I worked in Human Resources, managed the Tribal Mentorship and Workforce Development programs, and was the Board Chair for the Grand Ronde Gaming Commission. And eventually, I ran for Tribal Council. I’m now serving my third term as a Tribal Council member.

Serving on Tribal Council gave me an opportunity to join the Spirit Mountain Community Fund Board of Trustees. Being on this board was a great desire of mine because I feel like I have served in the philanthropic world for most of my life. Always doing volunteer work, seeing the positive effects of nonprofit organizations and, most of all, being able to help people.

Working for the Tribe, I often see the differences in people’s lives and the help that they need. And our Community Fund is something that I thoroughly enjoy being a part of because I can see the difference that we’re able to make. I see the important work of the nonprofit organizations that we provide funding for make a difference in people’s lives in a variety of ways.

Throughout the years, I’ve learned to recognize that sometimes people just need a little bit of help, or they just need somebody to listen to them and understand them. We have the opportunity to change somebody’s life. And every life we potentially change is a success for people who work in philanthropy. You help one family, one person, one child and it all trickles down. The work that philanthropic organizations do, that work trickles down to so many different people in so many different ways and I’m just really happy to be a part of that.

We as a Tribe were terminated for 29 years and we relied on the support of our surrounding communities and nonprofit organizations during our fight for restoration. And I think for me, being part of the Community Fund is a way for us to give back to the people who provided support to us for so many years.