Sunday, June 9, 2013

MOVE Trip 2013: CRST Reservation, South Dakota

As most of you know, I've been avoiding this post for a while. I'm not totally sure why--I think it's just that I still don't know how to put this experience into words strong enough for anyone who wasn't there to understand the meaning. But that's the incredible thing about extended service trips with MOVE in the first place: nobody can ever fully understand it except for the people who were there with you at the time. That goes for every trip, every year. Even groups that go to the same place year after year do not have the same experience as the last group.

For those of you who don't know what I'm talking about, MOVE is Saint Michael's College's volunteer program, and it stands for Mobilization of Volunteer Efforts. MOVE has tons of programs that run on a regular basis throughout the year, from weekly events throughout the local community to extended service trips both domestically and internationally. Last year, as a first-year student, I went to Beaumont, Texas over my winter break and spent a week at the Big Thicket National Preserve, where my group learned about biodiversity and environmental protection and helped plant trees and take care of the preserve. For my second MOVE trip, which I got home from about three weeks ago now, I did something drastically different. I joined ten others from Saint Mike's for a trip out to South Dakota and into the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, to the town of La Plant. We volunteered to work with a non-profit group called Simply Smiles, and spent the week staying in their community center. Our group was a "guinea pig group" for MOVE, as last year was the first time MOVE ever went out to the reservation and it was a group made up entirely of student leaders who had led other MOVE trips in the past. This year was the first time this trip was open to all students to apply for. Luckily, we were pretty much the best group in the history of MOVE trips (please don't let the bias in this sentence make you be skeptical about the rest of this post...)

Here we are arriving in South Dakota, prepared for the Big Red Bus to take us to the reservation! None of these photos are mine--as I said before, I barely took any pictures. This was taken by Josh Dufresne, a Simply Smiles staff member. The rest of the photos are by Carlos Sian, a member of the MOVE group...although I'm sure some were from the kids playing with his camera!

The reservation belongs to the Lakota people, whose roots trace back through generations to this land. As my group entered the reservation, the Simply Smiles staff reminded us that we were no longer in South Dakota or "in America" as we knew it. We were guests in someone else's place, and had to be respectful of that. Simply Smiles had been welcomed into the La Plant community a few years ago, and they were given the community center to work out of. They had been honored to gain the trust and respect of the people in the community, and paid it back with an equal amount of trust and respect. The reason for Simply Smiles' presence on the reservation is because it is an area of extreme poverty, with little infrastructure to help people survive. La Plant is a very isolated area, and people often have to fend for themselves.

The Community Center, looking on from the back entrance.
Some of the most beautiful sunsets I've ever seen were in South Dakota...and I live in Vermont, so I know sunsets!

Simply Smiles is "dedicated to building bright futures while improving the daily lives of impoverished children." It sounds like a general mission statement, but what it means is that it's taking on a lot of work and tackling several issues at once. That's why it's important to move slowly but steadily, and to make sure things are done correctly. The organization has had some success with their ongoing program in Oaxaca, Mexico, where they began. The CRST project is the first domestic project taken on by Simply Smiles, and they're the only outside group with a presence on the reservation.

So that's a lot of talking, but it's good to have some context before I launch into the whole story. We did a lot throughout our week on the reservation, but the best and most important thing we did by far was make connections. Despite everything else--the hardships, the poverty, the lack of resources or anything material--the best thing we could do for this community is show the people there that they are not alone. We ran a summer camp for the children in the community and spent time playing with them, laughing with them, and just getting to know them. The philosophy of Simply Smiles is that if we made one person smile each day, we were succeeding. Because when faced with so much struggle, it's difficult to smile.

Not only did we spend time with the kids, but we also got to know many adults and elders within La Plant as well. We helped Simply Smiles host a few community gatherings throughout the week, including bingo night, waffle breakfasts, and bison buger barbecues. As we sat down to eat with the elders, they would tell us about life in La Plant or teach us about Lakota culture. One of the highlights of the week was when Steve, a prominent member of the community, led a drumming ceremony for our group and told us about the meaning behind each of the songs they played. It was really great to see some of the younger boys learning how to use the drum, showing pride in their heritage and carrying on some magnificent traditions around our bonfire. We were all really happy to be included in the community, and to have been greeted with such a warm welcome.


During the mornings, when we were not holding summer camp, we'd work on projects that needed to be done around the community center or within the town. We helped finish renovating the kitchen of the community center, a project that had been started by previous volunteer groups, and some of us helped start a community garden.

Measuring and cutting wood for the kitchen.

I wasn't involved in this project as I was helping out in the kitchen, but many hours (and memories!) were put into the garden.

Some of the more artistic people in the group worked hard all week on the sign for the garden!

Sometimes we had projects that had not been expected by anyone, including getting vehicles unstuck from the mud.

One major goal for Simply Smiles on the reservation is to help provide adequate housing for everyone in the community. The climate in South Dakota allows for extreme weather, with incredibly hot temperatures in the later summer months and winter temperatures that can reach negative 50 degrees. The wind is incredibly strong when it rolls over the plains--I've never experienced anything like it. I can't imagine what that wind is like in the winter. And many people on the reservation live in homes that simply cannot protect them enough from this weather.

When it rains, the dry ground becomes what the locals call "gumbo": heavy, clumpy mud that sticks to your shoes. This kind of soil isn't very productive for agriculture...or walking...

So, as part of our project for the week, we helped set up for what would be the first Simply Smiles-facilitated home construction project on the CRST reservation. These affordably-priced homes were designed by the people living on the reservation, who know better than anyone else the exact issues to consider when building them. The community members also help build the homes, and by involving everyone in each project, people begin to come together and support each other.

 Although our week was too short for us to see the construction for the new home begin, it was really great to know that we were helping to prepare the area where it would be built. This included helping our friend Steve move everything out of his current home and begin taking it down so that the new house could be built in its place. I've been following Simply Smiles on Facebook, and the foundation has been completed. I can't wait to see pictures of the whole thing when it's done. It is one big step in a series of thousands of smaller steps to help build up this community, both literally and figuratively.

It took all of us for a project of this size! This is another photo by Josh.

How many volunteers does it take to move a doghouse?

I could spend hours talking about this one week of my life. I could go into much further detail about these incredible kids; the older community members who I had the pleasure of meeting; the amazing resilience of this one small community; Simply Smiles as a group; my wonderful MOVE group who have become great friends and are possibly the only ones who wouldn't mind listening to my constant rambling; and my ups and downs throughout the week that the rest of my group, and probably the community itself, felt as a whole. I could tell you about how I loved and hated everything about this place at the same time, and try to explain how something like that feels. I could tell you about each of the people behind the many friendship bracelets covering my wrists; or the fact that not a day goes by when that one week doesn't occupy my thoughts and free time; or that I do not just want to go back but feel the intense need to. I could try to describe all of the mixed feelings about that week to the best of my ability, despite the fact that there are things I still don't understand and probably never will. I could even apologize for the long post or the dramatic language, but I won't, because I truly believe that this trip deserves more attention than anything I've ever done. There are a lot of things I will keep to myself, simply because I don't know how to put them into words.

All I will say is that if you're still reading, and if any of this has struck a chord with you, then this trip is for you. You might buy Simply Smiles coffee or send a donation, but if that doesn't sit right with you and you feel that you need to do more, this trip is definitely for you. What Simply Smiles needs in order to work, and what this community needs, is people who care. People who will set their lives aside for a week at a time, people who will forget about their own wants or needs (including the need to know or understand everything and the luxury of indoor plumbing), people who don't mind getting their hands dirty or being challenged with something every step of the way. If you want to volunteer to do something that truly takes all of you, and that you don't do for the "rewarding" feeling afterward but simply because it's something that needs to be done, then volunteer with Simply Smiles.

If you go to Saint Mike's, you can apply for next year's MOVE group: when the semester begins again, pay attention to application due dates. Although all of the trips are equally awesome, definitely consider CRST Reservation, South Dakota as one of your picks. It's truly a dedication, but it's entirely worth it. If you've never been on a MOVE trip, all I can say is GO. I guarantee that whatever your qualms or reservations about it are, none of them are comparable to your reasons for going. Once you go on one, you'll want to go on all of them. They will change how you see the world.

If you didn't click on the links throughout the post, I would strongly advise going back through and exploring. They will describe some things I mentioned more clearly than I did. And if you're interested, check out the Simply Smiles blog to hear from more of the volunteer groups. My group wrote three while we were there; check them out:

First Saint Mike's MOVE Blog

MOVE's Wednesday Blog

Last SMC MOVE Blog

Whatever you do, give it everything you've got.


1 comment: