The Pine Ridge Reservation occupies 2.8 million acres in the southwest corner of South Dakota. It is the home of the Oglala Lakota, a tribe that is part of the Sioux people. The area often appears in news outlets, such as Al Jazeera and National Geographic, in stories that cover the challenges facing the area — including staggering rates of unemployment, critically low life expectancy and more. It is a place known for its hardship and pain, and where people from around the country travel to serve those who live there.
Each summer, members of the Western Reserve Academy community can be counted among volunteers.
On June 3, 2017, Izabel Acosta '20, Thomas Awender '18, Jai DuVal '20, Tia Forsyth '18, Ghassan Hamzeh '18, Xi Kang '19, Brigid Kelley '18, Andrew Provenzano '18, Garrett Schooner '19, Cassidy Williams '20, Yumeng Wu '20, and trip chaperones Emily Thews-Baldridge and Anthony Baldridge left for the reservation. The trip was coordinated with Re-Member, a nonprofit organization that has worked for decades to enhance the quality of life on the reservation.
"It can be a hard pill to swallow," admitted Baldridge. "On one day, we delivered beds that we had made another day, and that first house we visited was pretty shocking. There were holes in the floor, holes in the walls, there wasn't any insulation in the walls, the front door was off its hinges and propped up. No one should have been allowed to live there, and yet there were seven people living there."
On that day, they delivered five beds, including a bed frame, mattresses and bed linens. According to Baldrige, the home previously had a single mattress for its residents.
Garrett Schooner '19 said, "You go into some of the houses there, and you'd find out that there are four people to a bed or that someone doesn't have one. I signed up knowing nothing of the situation at Pine Ridge but once I got there and saw how some of them lived, it made me happy to see the things we made were valued so much."
This can be a humbling and challenging trip for the volunteers. The reservation isn't too far from Wounded Knee Creek, the site of one of the most violent massacres in U.S. history. The Ogala Lakota community is one with an indisputably painful past and with many challenges they continue to face, but it is also one that has shown resilience in the face of adversity and that continues to cherish and preserve its culture.
The volunteers who come are not just there to serve, but also to listen, learn and, for a short while, live as a fellow community member. Each visit, WRA students and chaperones travel to important cultural sites and interact regularly with the tribe members to gain valuable insight about their history, culture and everyday life in the community. For some of the volunteers, it is a truly special opportunity and one that brings them back the next summer to serve again.
"I would go again in a heartbeat," said Schooner. "It was life changing and getting to see all of these people and hear their stories was one of the most rewarding things I think that anyone could do. It's more personal than most community service programs. That's what I love about Reserve — you have an opportunity to go to all of these places and make a difference."