First Love: Pine Ridge Indian Reservation

An unforgettable week of service in Wanblee, South Dakota

Allison Heithoff, Editor-in-Chief of Quintessence

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A caravan of four minivans departed Skutt Catholic on July 24, 2016, bound for a destination different from past summer service trips: Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. Inside the vans stuffed full of duffel bags, sleeping bags, air mattresses, and pillows sat students and their sheer excitement for what the upcoming week would hold.

After about a seven hour drive and a brief stop to have mass with Father Jeff in Wayne, Nebraska, the caravan arrived in Wanblee, South Dakota. Cars were unloaded, air mattresses blown up and strategically positioned on the floor, and introductions made among the other two high school groups joining Skutt Catholic for the week, one from Minneapolis and the other from Utah.

Once everybody was settled in, the young and energetic Youth Works trip leaders introduced themselves and the overarching theme for the week: “First Love,” which comes from John 4:19 which says, “We love because God first loved us.”

The three high school groups were then intermixed to form smaller groups of about fifteen. These smaller groups dictated what service you would take part in each day, as well as the people you would be surrounded by for a majority of the trip.

A ripe 6:45 a.m. wake up call greeted everyone daily, followed by a walk over to the Crazy Horse School for breakfast. After an individual morning devotion, students separated into their groups to begin the each day of service doing one of three things: Reading Club, Kid’s Club, or community service.

Those appointed to reading club read alongside native children every morning and then aided with Kid’s Club in the afternoon, whereas everybody else took part in two days of Kid’s Club and two days of service throughout the reservation.

Beginning the first day, deep bonds started to forge with the children at Kid’s Club. The groups on duty tagged along with a kid or two to the many activity stations: huge blocks which became popular for games of Jenga, chalk, crafts, face paint, and much more.

I did not realize that I would bond with the kids as much as I did. Saying goodbye to them was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do.”

— Hayley Descoteaux

While several of the kids did not have shoes to call their own or wore the same clothes throughout the week, they radiated the purest form of joy. The most authentic giggles and laughs bubbled from them as they hopped on the backs of those who didn’t already have somebody perched on their shoulders. It was utterly contagious and made the process of saying goodbye to these newfound companions painfully difficult.

“My trip to Pine Ridge was a truly life changing experience. I did not realize that I would bond with the kids as much as I did. Saying goodbye to them was one of the hardest things I have ever had to do,” senior Hayley Descoteaux shares.

While half worked Kids Club, the other half were split up throughout the community doing service. From wood staining decks and playgrounds, painting ramps and living rooms, to picking weeds and trash that littered the lawns, it proved overwhelming to see all that needed to be done and the inability to fulfill all those needs in just a short week’s time.

As each day of service concluded, time was made to experience the beauty of South Dakota with its crisp, cool summer nights, and jagged rock skyline illuminated by vibrant sunsets. Quick road trips to Badlands National Park and a landmark known as the “38-foot cross” supplemented beauty with the hard but exhilarating day of service.

As the week came to a close, the harder it became to say goodbye to not only the children that had touched so many hearts but also the members of the other church groups. So much had been accomplished in the course of the week, yet it at also felt frustrating to see all the work that still desperately needed to be done.

As cars were loaded up, the caravan of vans left for home filled with all the same members, but a piece of them was forever changed. They left with the names, smiles, and memories of the children ingrained in their mind and incorporated in their prayers. While the entirety of poverty and poor conditions in the reservation could not have been fixed in a week’s time, everyone left with comfort knowing the touching impact they did made on those they encountered.

Mrs. Twist, one of the service trip leaders, summed up the experience saying, “The best part about our week in Wanblee was the amount of love that was present. We all fell in love with the children we met and that love was palpable in our prayer and worship time each night. That is why our hearts were so changed by the experience, we were able to love the people there with God’s love as our example.”