It’s hard to get Bernadette (Bernie) Kniffin to sit and talk about her role as Director of Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) and Transit for the San Carlos Apache Tribe. She’s busy doing it, responding to local needs during a global pandemic and planning for the future.
“Our benefits are still rolling,” she reports in a quick update in late April. “We’re doing our best to stay above water.”
Cash assistance was going out May 1. Care packages are getting delivered. Covid-19 funds came in to keep the transit running twice a week. Maintenance is getting done. She is still writing grants, holding webinars. To maintain health precautions, the team is working staggered shifts in the office and meeting by Zoom.
Unemployment on the reservation is rising above its already high 65-75%, but Bernadette is confident in her team. With programs largely computerized, they are able to track their participants and maintain services, handle new applications and renewals.
“I have a great team. We have great partners,” she says. “We’re always working ahead to prepare for situations like this.”
The 3-year plan for TANF, beginning May 1, 2020, has been approved. Counselors begin their training in late April, using Zoom.
A Well-Trained Team
“She’s a ‘get up and do it now’ person,” says Mary Hughes.
Mary Hughes has known Bernadette for 30 years. Mary and her husband started ML& H Computers in their home and have been operating its storefront on N. Broad St. since 1992. In 2010, ML & H installed computers, cubicles and purchased furniture for the San Carlos Apache TANF office.
“She runs one of the most tight-knit offices I’ve ever had the pleasure to be in,” says Mary. “They are well-trained and efficient.”
Bernadette attributes that to a lot of customer service training.
“I am very strict,” she says.
Currently, Bernadette is directing her well-trained team of 12 into action — managers, counselors and maintenance workers — distributing essentials to hundreds of families on the reservation. Mary Hughes is helping out.
“She is at the helm, and believe you me,” says Mary, “she keeps her people hopping.”
Path to Public Service
Bernadette has been interested in helping children since she, herself, was a child. In the fifth grade, she tutored other Apache students. Her mother was a teacher, as was her grandfather, for 40 years.
In 1995, after graduating from Northern Arizona University (NAU), Bernadette returned to San Carlos to work for Apache children through the Head Start Program. More than 20 years later, she was recognized as the 2019 First Things First Champion for Young Children for the San Carlos Apache Region, an award given to local influencers who actively raise public awareness of the importance of early childhood development and health.
Beginning in 2003, Bernadette led the effort to set up a Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) program for San Carlos Apaches, in partnership with the Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES). She sees the federal funding as the means to provide a hand up rather than a handout.
“I wanted to see something better for the people,” Bernadette says. “ I wanted to help people to help themselves.”
After four years of negotiating and policy writing, a resolution was formed. The San Carlos Apache tribe would operate their own Temporary Assistance for Needy Families (TANF) program.
“We understand our people,” says Bernadette in a DES video, “Where they are coming from, what they’ve been through, the economic depression that we live in at this time.”
The Arizona Department of Economic Security (DES) helped with training and promoted professionalism. The San Carlos team provided cultural sensitivity and served a meal, cooked the old way. Acorn soup. Strong partnerships were formed.
“DES state really helped a lot,” Bernadette acknowledges. “We helped them too by taking on our own caseloads.”
Other Arizona tribes administering TANF plans in Arizona include Pascua Yaqui, Salt River Pima-Maricopa Indian Community, White Mountain Apache, Navajo Nation and Hopi.
TANF – Federal Aid
Temporary Assistance to Needy Families (TANF) provides cash assistance to low-income families with children; it requires participation in programs for employment, training, and education.
TANF replaced Aid to Families with Dependent Children (AFDC) via Personal Responsibility and Work Reconciliation Act of 1996, a key component of the Republican “Contract with America,” and fulfillment of Clinton’s campaign promise to “end welfare as we know it.”
TANF puts focus on temporary supports that help people move off welfare rolls and into productive employment. This was a response to concerns about dependency on social welfare — the poverty trap, welfare queens.
“We’re transitioning them from public assistance into productive San Carlos Apache tribal members,” she explains. “We’re able to help at an eye-to-eye level.”
Nnee Bich’o Nii – Helping People
Bernie consulted her grandmother, the late Sadie Kniffin, about changing the name from TANF to Nnee Bich’o Nii which means “Helping the People.” She was given her stamp of approval.
When the Nnee Bich’o Nii program launched on May 1, 2008, there were nearly 989 cases. The caseload is currently 108 and has been as low as 55 according to Bernadette.
“We’re getting people to work, to school, we’re doing drug testing, drug rehabilitation, job training.”
Though colleagues laud her commitment and leadership style, Bernadette credits her ability to keep going and get things done to her faith in God and “lots of prayers.”
The program Bernadette directs has been a model for others’ reservations across the country. She travels the country to help implement her programs, according to longtime friend, Mary Hughes, but keeps a low profile.
“She doesn’t blow her horn,” Mary says. “She keeps her nose to the grindstone.”
Synergizing the Transit System
In 2008, seeing the community’s need for reliable, affordable public transportation as essential to employment and educational opportunities, Bernadette acquired three vans from the Arizona Department of Transportation (ADOT).
Today, Apache Transit has 4 buses, 13 vans and 16 drivers. 8 of the vehicles are equipped with wheelchair lifts meeting the Americans with Disabilities Act requirements. They provide public transportation from Safford to Globe and throughout the districts in San Carlos and Bylas. They provide transportation for the employees of Apache Gold Casino and Apache Sky Casino and students of the San Carlos Training Institute. In 2019, they donated a 16-passenger van to the Family Preservation Program, to be used to transport children on field trips, where they learn about Apache culture and the plants on their land.
Nnee Bich’o Nii Services of San Carlos is one of six programs recognized for achievement in tribal transit, providing transportation to employment and education opportunities.
In 2019, National Rural Transit Assistance Program (RTAP) distinguished Bernadette as Tribal Champion for creating TANF partnerships “we only dream of” and building critical transportation resources for her tribe “through leadership and innovation.”
Bylas Ndee Bich’o Nii Services
297 E Hwy 70 Bylas Incubator Ste A, Bylas, AZ 85530
Phone: 928 475 50332
San Carlos Nnee Bich’o Nii Services
99 N Old Moonbase Rd. Peridot, AZ 85542
Ph: (928) 475-5011
Monday – Friday: 8am – 4:30pm
San Carlos Nnee Bich’o Nii Apache Transit Services
1080 Highway 70 Cutter, AZ
Ph: (928) 475-2023 Monday – Friday: 8am – 4:30pm
A traveler, Patti Daley came to Globe in 2016 to face the heat, follow love, and find desert treasure. She writes in many formats and records travel scraps and other musings at daleywriting.com.