When John and Sophie Ottens moved from New York to Arizona in the mid-1990s, they found more than fresh air to ease Sophie’s asthma. They found a way to create possibilities for thousands of Native American students through their funding of internships, scholarships, fellowships, academic programs, and student clubs at universities across the Four Corners states, including Fort Lewis College.
After 20 years of service and more than $5.2 million in grants to FLC, the John and Sophie Ottens Foundation, FLC’s largest benefactor in terms of total gifts, is winding down operations. One of the Ottens Foundation’s greatest contributions to the FLC community is the funding of the Native American Center, a project they embraced in 2000 and every year since. That support will continue for another 10 years, thanks to a $1.6 million lump sum given to FLC for the purposes of covering the NAC’s yearly costs and services to support student needs. The donation is the largest single cash gift in FLC history.
“The recent gift from the John and Sophie Ottens Foundation to our Native American Center is timely and greatly appreciated as our Indigenous students need our support more than ever,” says Lee Bitsóí, Diné (Navajo), FLC’s Diversity Collaborative director and special advisor to the president for Native American Affairs.
As of Fall 2019, 41% of FLC’s diverse student body is represented by Native American and Alaska Native students from 177 tribes and villages around the country. Many Native Americans choose FLC because it offers a tuition waiver for any federally recognized tribal member. Campus is also located within 150 miles of 25 Indian reservations, making it a convenient option for Indigenous students who seek to put their degrees and newfound professional skills to work in their home communities.
But the hurdles between the start and finish line of college can be overwhelming – especially now. In the wake of the COVID-19 pandemic, Bitsóí says the Ottens Foundation donation is critical to helping the NAC bolster the amount and quality of digital resources available to Native American students.
“Moreover, we can begin to explore strengthening our pipeline programs that will allow Indigenous students to become nurses, physicians, health care professionals, educators, and social workers to contribute to the nation building of their communities,” he adds.
One of the most persistent challenges in tribal communities is a shortage of healthcare professionals, which contributes to myriad inequalities, from a lower life expectancy to a higher rate of preventable chronic conditions. Research reveals a catalyst for this is that most healthcare professionals on the reservations are not Native.
“If you don’t see role models when you’re going through your teens, you don’t realize there’s a reason to go to college, get a degree, and return home to serve your community,” says Henry Hooper, president of the John and Sophie Ottens Foundation.
After retiring from a career in furniture manufacturing, the Ottens moved to Sedona, Arizona, and wasted no time finding ways to support underserved populations of the Southwest. As travelers and amateur archaeologists, the Ottens were always intrigued by Indigenous peoples around the world and naturally drawn to the Native tribes of the Four Corners region.
With no children or family, the couple wanted to invest their wealth in the next generation of Native Americans. To ensure their money went directly to students and student-focused programs, they connected with Hooper, who was at the time Northern Arizona University’s dean of the graduate school, vice president for Research, and a professor of Physics. Since arriving at NAU from the University of Maine in 1981, he traveled extensively throughout the region, further developing relationships with neighboring reservations to expand access to resources for graduate students.
“I was always interested in putting money through universities where you could train Native Americans who would go back and help their communities,” says Hooper.
At first, Hooper directed the Ottens to set up assistantships for NAU’s Native American graduate students. Meanwhile, Hooper would drive John to reservations around the Four Corners to help him better understand what these tribal communities needed most. One of the glaring issues they noticed was the lack of Native American healthcare workers, teaching professionals, and social workers living and working on the reservations. Thus, the mission for the John and Sophie Ottens Foundation evolved to focus on assisting Native American students in the Four Corners states specifically in their pursuits of education and healthcare professions.
When Hooper retired from NAU in 1999, he stepped into an official role as president of the John and Sophie Ottens Foundation. He and his wife, Jeanne, moved to Ridgway, Colorado, where Hooper reconnected with his friend Hubert Williams, who worked with Native American students at FLC in nearby Durango.
Impressed by Williams’ efforts on campus, the Ottens Foundation granted funds to support programs for retention of Native American students and, in 2009, pledged $1 million for the new Native American Center. Including the latest $1.6 million gift, the Ottens Foundation has given a total of $5.2 million toward scholarships, renovations, and annual costs associated with the NAC.
The Ottens Foundation helped establish the NAC as a central location for Native American scholars to find support, resources, and community on campus. The Center welcomes all Native American students by providing personal development opportunities, ensuring academic success, and a safe place to build community. Over the years, NAC services have grown to include diversity and inclusion programming, academic, cultural, social, and transitional support, tutoring and faculty hours, and access to speaker series, Indigenous Leadership Trainings, village gatherings, Native American Heritage Month festivities, and The Cultural Kitchen.
“When we support Native American scholars at FLC, we support a shared journey in guiding and developing future Indigenous leaders, whether it be in health, teaching, or social work,” says Simon Chief, Diné (Navajo), Assistant Director of the NAC. “These scholars may have navigated different paths, challenges, and obstacles to obtain a degree from FLC, but they have a common vision for the future: a better tomorrow for themselves, their families, and their communities.”
In 2000, the same year they helped launch FLC’s NAC, both John and Sophie passed away, leaving the mission of the Ottens Foundation in Hooper’s capable hands. Hooper would not only continue the Ottens’ legacy of stewardship well beyond their deaths; he pursued the mission of the organization with a zeal that ensured no less than 20 programs were funded every year for the last 20 years. Now 85, he plans to retire – for real – next year.
“The John and Sophie Ottens Foundation has made an indelible impact on Fort Lewis College through the years,” says FLC President Tom Stritikus. “Thank you to Henry and Jeanne Hooper and the Ottens’ trustees for their investment in creating opportunity and support for our Native American students.”