OAKS — J.D. Colbert has earned many accolades. He holds master's degrees from Harvard and Johns Hopkins universities, he received a White House appointment and he is a bank president. Colbert credits a small American Indian residential center in northeastern Oklahoma for giving him the foundation to persevere and succeed. Oaks Indian Mission is a home for children who are abused, neglected or abandoned, and others whose parents cannot care for them. Daily life, Colbert said, consisted of performing morning chores, going to school, doing homework and playing sports. "I learned how to live among other people,” said Colbert, who today is president of Native American Bank in Denver. "I learned many customs and traditions, and I learned how to stand up for myself. I gained a confidence in myself that I didn't have before.” He said the staff motivated him to work harder. While growing up in Tulsa, Colbert was placed at Oaks Indian Mission at age 9 for a year while his mother traveled to South Dakota to get her nurse's certification. She refused to leave him and his three siblings in their stepfather's care because the man was an alcoholic, Colbert said. The mission seemed like a safe place. "It's for kids that just need a place to stay where they're safe and they can grow up with a sense of healthiness,” said Don Marshall, development director. Oaks Indian Mission, 20 miles northeast of Tahlequah, houses up to 48 children and teens. They live in cottages with a house parent and attend a nearby public school. Most of the residents are American Indians, ages 3-18, but children of other ethnicities are accepted, Marshall said. Unlike the state's system, they don't automatically age out when they turn 18. Some stay a few years beyond that, he said. "That's the beauty of the Oaks,” Marshall said. "There is flexibility so they can remain with us however long it takes them to get on their feet and be prepared for the world.” And siblings who are taken in at the mission don't have to worry about being separated, he said. "That was helpful because it gave me a sense that I wasn't alone,” Colbert said. The 9-year-old who gained confidence at Oaks went on to be founder of the Native American Bankers Association and was appointed in 2006 to serve on the Community Development Advisory Board, a division of the U.S. Treasury Department. He said he pursued a career in the banking industry after watching his mother struggle to secure a home loan. "Nobody I knew owned their home,” Colbert said. "My mom couldn't ever get a home loan so she could own a roof over her head. That's when I realized I wanted to find out about the mystery of banking and finance, so I could bring that knowledge to the tribes.” Some things remain constant at Oaks Indian Mission. Deanna, 16, a resident for the past four years, said her time at the mission has helped her gain self-assurance. When she leaves, she wants to pursue a career in nursing. "Before I came here, I was worried about what people thought about me, but the Oaks have helped me be myself,” Deanna said. "They accept me for me.” The people — her friends and the staff — are the best part about living at the mission, Deanna said. "The staff is very caring, and I get taken care of,” she said. "If I was back at home, I wouldn't get as much attention.”
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Residents of the Oaks Indian Mission enjoy games in the George Sartain Student Life Center on the mission's campus in Oaks, north of Tahlequah. BY JIM BECKEL, THE OKLAHOMAN