The Apache Exchange Program was a proud chapter in Scripps Ranch history. It operated from 1978-1993 at Miramar Ranch Elementary School (MRE) and Rice School on the San Carlos Reservation in Arizona. The program sent MRE 6th grade students to live on the reservation for a week, and Apache children came to Scripps Ranch for a week.
The program earned MRE the prestigious Freedom Foundation’s George Washington Medal in 1990, awarded annually to “Americans who, through word or deed, help maintain the principles of our nation,” and fulfill the Freedom Foundation’s Bill of Responsibilities: “To respect the rights and beliefs of others.”
The concept originated with MRE parent Joan Gass, who saw a 1977 court ruling that each elementary school have a Race-Human Relations Committee as the opportunity she was waiting for. She and her husband, Arnold, had lived on the San Carlos Reservation from 1970-1973 while he was a physician with the Indian Health Service. Since then, she’d wanted something good to happen for the Apache children, and she thought the students at her son’s school would benefit from knowing them. The San Diego Unified School District approved the program, which became an educational experience like no other in California. About 900 children went through the program during its existence.
The first delegation from MRE, 53 5th and 6th grade students, went to the San Carlos Reservation in April 1978. The next month 32 students from Rice School came to MRE. Newspapers from San Diego to Charleston, S.C., carried the story. It was even “fit to print” in The New York Times.
Joan described the program as “a perfect study in mixing extremes,” showing that “despite different skin colors and lifestyles, kids when give the chance can get along well together.” Scripps Ranch was in direct contrast to the San Carlos Reservation, where one-half of the residents were unemployed, amidst a myriad of social problems.
The Apache children had little contact with whites and viewed them with distrust. MRE children’s view of the Apaches was the stereotypical one perpetuated by the film industry. Because of the Apaches’ shyness of whites, only the MRE children stayed in Apache homes. Chaperones lived elsewhere.
The Scripps Ranch children took quickly to riding horses bareback and sitting down at a real pow-wow. A typical week at San Carlos included tours of the reservation, forestry service headquarters, tribal chambers, mining, and firefighting operations. They picnicked at Point of Pins, visited the Pinto Valley Copper Mine in Miami, Arizona, the Besh Begowan Ruins in Globe, cliff dwellings at Tonto National Monument, and Roosevelt Dam. Friday might be a
mini-cultural day of dances, craft demonstrations, and field day activities. A lot of time was spent playing basketball, a popular pastime on the reservation. A highlight of the trip was a barbecue dinner at the home of the tribal chief. Of course, one night was reserved for the anxiously awaited dance.
The itinerary in San Diego might include a visit to the Chula Vista Nature Center, a harbor excursion, a trip to Balboa Park, the San Diego Zoo, and SeaWorld. A potluck dinner, some fun at the Scripps Ranch Swim and Racquet Club, and a picnic at Miramar Lake were other things on the agenda. Saturday was in the hands of the host family, which took the form of a trip to Disneyland, then-Naval Air Station (NAS) Miramar, a Padres game, or the beach. It was the first time most of the Apache children had seen the ocean. There also was the popular Nintendo, swimming, and dance.
The Apache children might initially have been overwhelmed by the material possessions they saw in Scripps Ranch, but they were not envious, according to Joan Gass. “The acquisition of possessions is a foreign concept to the Apaches,” she explained. “The Apache idea is sharing. If we comment about something on the wall that we find lovely, they will give it to us. They put little emphasis on things and more on perceptions, ideas, and relationships. Our children are noticing that all our material possessions don’t equate to the love and freedom enjoyed by Apache children.”
MRE parent Bob Reese was a chaperone and felt the exchange to be a “positive experience,” a chance for kids to “open their eyes to a different culture.” Both his sons, Michael and Matt, made the trip to the reservation. Michael was one of three boys staying at the chief’s home. The chief’s wife made a quilt for each boy to take home. The Reeses hosted Apaches in their home twice, taking in one boy the first time, and two boys and an adult the second time.
Countless Scripps Ranch families involved themselves in the bold undertaking. School secretary Charlene Spritzer filled out all the paperwork throughout the entire 15 years that the trip existed. Her son, Jeff, participated in the program in 1982. MRE’s then-principal Dorothy Byergo took on a continuous leadership role in the joint venture, as did many teachers and parents. Joan Gass, whose youngest son, Ari, was not around at the time the family lived on the reservation, got to know the Apache children through the Exchange Program.