The founder of a St. George-based program for troubled American Indian teens says he created it to fulfill his dream of providing the youth with opportunities similar to those that changed his life.

Last Dec. 27, Rain Dancer Youth Services Inc. filed suit against the Washington County School District and its Board of Education of their refusal to admit three Navajo teens to public schools in the St. George area until out-of-state tuition was paid.Washington County School District officials have issued no formal comment on Rain Dancer's complaint. School district attorney John Palmer said the complaint has been filed and the 20-day comment period is now in force. He said a response is being prepared by the Utah attorney general's office.

Program founder Ron Hatch said he and his wife first wanted to develop a program to help problem LDS youth. But, after consultation with officials from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints Social Services Department and other church leaders, the couple was encouraged to begin working with American Indian youth. Hatch, a Miwok Indian and the father of nine, had a background working with more than 300 foster children and administering group homes.

The Rain Dancer program began in the Provo area, then moved to St. George because of the warmer climate and to be close to Hatch's in-laws.

Hatch said Rain Dancer's mission is to help troubled American Indian youth get back to a state of mind where they can make good decisions about their lives. "What I try to do is bring youth who have had a lot of turmoil and pain in their lives here, show them love and care for them. Hopefully, they will get back to a frame of mind where they can make decisions without the pain and anguish that they have felt," he said.

Hatch said the program tries to instruct the youth about the meaning of an upstanding lifestyle in their later years.

"Being Native American, they carry with them some of the labels and discrimination that is pretty much felt in society," Hatch said. "I teach them that they don't have to be stupid, drunk Indians. They don't have to be lazy. They can accomplish whatever they want."

Hatch said the program's principal method is use of what he called therapeutic foster homes. Program participants are housed in 12 such homes in Washington County. Hatch said the program also offers several role models, Native Americans who are successful in family and occupation.

While certain values are stressed, no specific religious training is endorsed. If participants wish to attend the church of their choice, arrangements are made with individual religious leaders.

Hatch said youth are usually referred to the program by the tribal court system. Sometimes, Rain Dancer accepts referrals from Utah's juvenile court system. Sometimes parents of troubled teens approach tribal divisions of social services with requests that their children be placed in a setting which can help them. Situations may include problems at home, troubles with the law, not going to school or general ungovernability.

Hatch said they take care to ensure that youth accepted to Rain Dancer are suited to the program. "Our program is not geared toward helping every youth," Hatch said. "I guess we work with the experimental kids, kids that might be experimenting with alcohol and drugs, but not using them every day of their life."

Many of the young people have had problems succeeding in school. Hatch said the two full-time teachers on staff provide classes in the basic curriculum, as well as a wide variety of electives destined to give participants knowledge of Native American culture and the broader world perspective. The teens are in class four days a week. The fifth day is set aside for field trips and other activities.

In addition to the two full-time teachers and one teacher's aide, Rain Dancer Youth Services employs three social workers and an administrative staff. Hatch, who attended college but did not earn a degree, said, "I hired people with the educational backgrounds that would result in this agency obtaining a license to operate in the state of Utah."

Hatch said five program graduates are considered real success stories. A number of others are doing OK, he said, while some others have slipped into their old ways after returning home. "Overall, we feel we have a good success rate with our students," Hatch said.