Shining Star

Marlene Roulliard broke free from a vicious cycle and founded the Women's Empowerment Circle.

By 1996, Living Waters had become the Four Winds Survival Project. It had begun phasing out its alcoholic-recovery halfway house and started devoting itself to traditional Native American ceremonies. Its councilmembers were exploring other programs, too.

Marlene, a volunteer, had an idea: Drawing upon her memory of her grandmother's kitchen, she suggested a program where Native American women from all tribes could gather and make traditional arts and crafts. They could sew star quilts, moccasins and jingle dresses. And at the same time, they could discuss problems, share advice, get to know each other. In the basement, they could have a circle.

The councilmembers agreed that the idea had merit. Life in Denver was hard enough for Native American men, but for women who were often alone with children, it could be brutal. Although there were already assistance projects in place, including those at the Denver Indian Center, too many women were falling through the cracks. Women needed an additional support system, a safety net.

John Johnston
A stitch in time: Marlene Roulliard works on a star quilt 
in the Four Winds basement.
John Johnston
A stitch in time: Marlene Roulliard works on a star quilt in the Four Winds basement.

The project started slowly, but Marlene and her friends persevered. The word spread, and more women came. Soon they had a circle.

Life was good. Marlene was happy. She wanted to give something back.

It was December 1997, just before Christmas, and she wanted to host a thanksgiving ceremony. She wanted to cook a big meal and give away her most precious possessions. Although she had recently butchered a cow and offered up a freezerful of food to her friends, family and community members, she wanted to give even more.

"Marlene, you don't have to do this," her friends said.

But she insisted: "I want to. I really do."

She made preparations at Four Winds. When her youngest son said he'd come, she got excited. Since her release from prison, Marlene had tried to make amends with her family. She'd apologized. She'd listened. And she'd cried when her youngest son had slammed his fist into the wall by her head and raged, "You don't know what you did to us!" But slowly, the wounds had begun to heal.

The thanksgiving ceremony went wonderfully, but Marlene's son didn't show.

At 3 a.m. the next day, he called. "Mom, I'm in the hospital."

He and his friends had gone drinking. They'd been on C-470 when their Toyota SUV had flipped four times. He'd flown through the windshield. The impact had been so violent that his shoes stayed on the dashboard.

"Mom," he said. "I don't have a scratch."

Marlene hung up on him.

He needed a ride home, but she refused. Relieved as she was, she knew that he'd have to learn how to clean up his own messes. Then it hit her: Her son had been spared. Because she had given so much of herself to the community, her son had been returned to her.

The next morning, he knocked on her door.

"I'm done drinking. I'm done with drugs."

For a month, he stayed in his room and kicked his habit cold turkey. Then he asked Marlene if he could go to the sweat lodge with her. Then he asked if she would help on his vision quest. Then he started walking in a good way. He has been sober ever since.

Marlene's middle son now lives in Denver with his family. He's sober, too, and learning the traditional ways. So is Marlene's sister. So is her oldest aunt.

"See how prayer works," Marlene says. "People can change."

Lisa Ortega was terrified. In December 2001, she was three months pregnant, and her boyfriend had just kicked her out. He'd wanted her to have an abortion, but she had refused, so he'd showed her the door. She had no money and no friends or family to take her in. The shelters were full and it was getting dark. Soon, she'd be on the streets.

Then she remembered Marlene. If you're in trouble, Lisa had heard, Marlene will help. If you're on the streets, she'll walk along the Platte River with doughnuts, condoms, hairbrushes and sleeping bags. She'll stop and talk and make sure you're okay. If you have the shakes, she'll give you a few bucks so you don't have to drink Listerine. If you're ready to sober up, she knows where you can get help. But if not, she'll know you're better when the sleeping bag shows up back on her porch.

If you're new to Denver and don't have a place to stay or diapers for your kids, Marlene will make a few calls, find some Pampers and help out with gas money. She's also been known to offer her own couch from time to time and reach into her own pocket. She'll do what she can to help you get a job, a place and a little stability.

If you're in prison and want to pray in the traditional ways, Marlene will visit. She will talk, she will listen, she will share what she knows. And when you get out, she'll invite you to Four Winds and help you continue to learn. And she will check up on you, too, and keep on checking up on you.

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