The last week of my summer, I decided to spend on a service trip with the organization, Simply Smiles, on a Native American Reservation. The reservation that Simply Smiles works with is the Cheyenne River Reservation and it runs programming and safe spaces for children and families at a community center on the reservation in the town of La Plant, South Dakota.
To give some background into where this town is and the size of it, there is a sign as you enter La Plant saying that the population is only 171 people and it is around a five hour drive from the Rapid City, SD airport. The size of the Cheyenne River Reservation is about the size of Connecticut, although all the land from when you leave the airport, to the current boarder of the reservation, use to be owned by the Native Americans and now they are left with a small portion of what they once owned.
Though Lakota Native Americans do not see land as something to be owned and view their role in society as what is best for the community; an "us" not "I" mentality.
Upon arrival on the reservation, I did not really know what to expect. I knew there would be the prairie land environment but I was not expecting a highway running through the reservation, along with some stores and a gas station in one of the "larger" towns that we passed through on our drive to La Plant.
My week in La Plant, consisted of assisting the staff of Simply Smiles in preparing to leave (after being there all summer) along with running an after school camp for the children living in La Plant, as well as the neighboring town (20 minute drive away) of Swiftbird, SD. I also had the opportunity to go into the K-12 school in La Plant and speak with a number of seniors about college, along with work with several 2nd graders on a morning math lesson.
Spending time in the school only further reinforced the need for volunteers and more teachers in the community. The school has never had a certified math teacher because it is so hard to find someone to move to La Plant (or near by) and work at the school. There are also very small classes of graduating seniors, due in part to a lack of home support. There is a very high drop out rate and many children on the reservation do not grow up thinking that they could have a life off of the reservation. Simply Smiles works to show children there are opportunities for them outside of the reservation and provides support to those seeking those opportunities.
The daily lives that the children on the reservation face everyday are days that most people could never comprehend a child living through. There are many issues with alcohol and drug abuse, along with an unemployment rate of 88%. Simply Smiles strives to give children a time to be kids and a safe environment with staff and volunteers who love them unconditionally.
Even though there are moments of struggle and hard work on the reservation, any small moment of hope or joy overpowers. This unconditional love for La Plant, South Dakota and the children there, overcame me in just the one week I spent volunteering for Simply Smiles. The end of the week hugs and goodbyes were so difficult, but the Lakota always say, "There is no goodbye, only a see you later".
I hope to return to La Plant with Simply Smiles and continue to learn about the Lakota Native Americans and service this community that I have fallen in love with and continue to miss after returning home.