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By Teresa Cutts

Elvis Presley’s iconic hit “Love Me Tender” comes to mind when I think of Three Precious Miracles, a small, but mighty, grassroots organization started by Elisia and Tecumseh Manuel in Sacaton, Arizona. The lyrics of “Love me tender. Love me true. Never let me go,” reminds of the mission of this family, who believes that every displaced Native American child deserves love, a sense of belonging and cultural engagement.

Elisia and Tecumseh Manuel were gracious when we arrived, over 90 minutes late, to their office on the Gila River reservation in Sacaton, AZ. Three Precious Miracles or TPM started when the Manuel’s were fostering two boys and were unexpectedly blessed to adopt the three children that
they now call their own: Tecumseh, Precious, Micah (the boys are biological brothers)—their very own Three Precious Miracles. After struggling to have biological children for years, these young children changed their lives forever. However, it also made visible some deep needs in the foster care community. Currently, there are over 17,000 Arizona children in out-of-home placement through foster or kinship care or unofficial familial placements. Many of these children are Native American. Elisia and Tecumseh have been engaging with native youth for decades. Tecumseh tells the story of a 17-year-old Native American boy who was planning on dropping out of school, but talked to Tecumseh, who encouraged him not to give up. A few years later, the young man contacted Tecumseh and shared that his inspiration kept him in school to receive his high school diploma.

Elisia and Tecumseh both have demanding day jobs—she is an Outreach Coordinator and he is a Materials Manager for Gila River Indian Community. However, they began this work because of the need in foster care that they experienced. Elisia noted that foster parents don’t get clothing for children placed in their homes. So, Elisia (Apache and Hispanic heritage) and Tecumseh (Pima) and their extended family supporters helped them to collect, sort, wash and dry clothing, stockpile diapers, shoes, coats and more supplies to provide for foster families, who often called out the blue to take children in need. Grandparents and even other program agencies began calling on them for supplies and help. Soon, their garage was overflowing with supplies. The Running Strong for Native Indian and donated coats, shoes and blankets. ​Billy Mills, a Olympic gold medalist and Running Strong’s National Spokesperson, has dedicated his life to serving American Indian communities and this organization donates hundreds of coats and supplies to TPM every year.​​Using their own money, the Manuel’s rented space in the plaza next to the post office in Sacaton to store more goods for the children and families and establish an office space.

The Manuels were also convinced too, that many of the Native American children were being fostered by great parents, but were being pulled farther away from their tribal heritage. Elisia had conducted a survey of foster parents, who noted that the biggest need was for clothing, but also truly wanted to learn about the Native American culture from which their children came. So, in May 2016, they first offered an event, called “Royalty with Miracles” to help the children ​have an inter-tribal event that would bring all Native foster care children together, whether they are in kinship care, grandparents raising grandchildren, or foster care system, to celebrate their culture and to build self-esteem and awareness who are suffering from trauma, through no fault of their own. ​All Native American tribes have Native Royalty that represent their community. 34 Native Representatives from many different tribes came to this event, offering a personal one –on- one interaction of singing and having fun bowling with royalty alongside them. The response from the kids was incredibly positive and powerful, so they plan to make this an annual event. As Elisia puts it, “These kids want to know who they are, where they are from, and their roots. This gives them a sense of belonging, of hope.”

TPM’ work is truly changing both childrens’ lives AND policy. Elisia and Tecumseh also worked locally with the tribe, local day cares and HeadStart to change policies, such that the daycare on the reservation could accept foster children (not a policy before, which created hardships for those fostering children there). In 2017 alone, TPM served over 800 children who would otherwise not have been provided immediate services due to lack of resources and gaps in the current system throughout Native communities.

There are times when the burden and needs seem too great for TPM. Once they were planning a trip to the White Mountain Apache Tribe, which had requested jackets. There was no money to purchase these jackets, but, somehow, rather divinely, an unsolicited truck of jackets showed up at their office doorstep and that need was met. The same phenomenon occurred with a backpack drive; those needed items materialized.

This past year, Elisia, began being very aware of the nuances of children living as a foster child and the lacking of a sense of belong, decided to create a personalized quilted blanket project. The blankets would be handmade by groups and TPM would embroider them to include their names and tribal affiliation of their home tribe. That project is now underway, with grant from Cook Native American Ministries to purchase of an embroidery machine to create a custom blanket that can identify a child to their culture spiritually, mentally.  Also, they can physically have something that is personalized for them during their hardest times. Elisia and Tecumseh feel blessed to be supported spiritually and by their family to provide this resource. Tecumseh’s father and mother, both Gila River tribal elder and leaders, are very supportive in providing resources or care for the Manuel’s children when they have to travel to events. Elisia’s sister and sister-in-law are key volunteer that dedicate their time daily to serve families. The Manuels hope to do whatever they can to provide events and resources in more remote areas Tribal Communities.

Tecumseh reports having no problems with the usual territoriality seen among the tribes, overcome by this welcoming spirit and total transparency about their mission. TPM says they will do something and then deliver on that promise to serve children.

TPM clearly is doing God’ work in the world. Elisia dreams of giving up her day job and running the ministry full-time. She hopes for a bigger office and storage space for clothes and supplies and hosting quarterly legacy cultural events for the children and their families.

Elisa also shared that there is a Native American saying, “No matter the length of time or distance, your tribe is always there in your heart and no one can take your tribe away from you.”  The work of TPM is designed to bring the children’s culture back into their lives and hearts: loving them tenderly and never letting them go.