Shining Star

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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.

"Her biggest contribution is her heart," says RoSean Kent Howard, a Four Winds councilmember. "Her heart is so big, she can't help but help the people. She's raised a lot of kids, too, and she's still raising them. And she's humble. Very humble."

Lisa didn't know Marlene well, but she'd heard some of these things. So she stopped by Marlene's bungalow, which is next door to Four Winds. Although Marlene had a full house that night, she took Lisa in. She has watched over her ever since.

When Lisa's boy was born seven months ago, Marlene practically became his grandma. She fed him, sang to him, loved him. And this generosity has helped Lisa to stand tall. She has learned how to use computers. She has made plans to attend college this fall. She's hoping to get her own place. But no matter what she accomplishes, she and her baby will continue to visit the basement of Four Winds and sit among the women.

"They care about me here," Lisa says. "They do."

Corn bread, bean soup, rice and chicken casserole, cinnamon rolls with icing. Come on in, Marlene says. Grab a plate and have a seat. If you want to visit, you gotta eat. And when you're done, eat some more.

It's another Monday night, and the women are here again, talking about making jingle dresses, moccasins and dolls representing the different Native American nations. They're here again talking about babies, husbands and supplies they need, like new sewing machines, embroidery thread, polyester stuffing and diapers. Size fours. Don't forget the Lamborghini. They need one of those, too. A yellow one.

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Harrison Fletcher