The students that returned from the Buena Vista University interim trip to the Rosebud Indian Reservation near Mission, SD, where they interacted with poverty-stricken Native Americans, came back with changed lives.
"I have a whole new perspective of life," said Dana Earles. "Now, when I'm struggling, I know there are people struggling 10 more times than me." The experience spurred her to clean out her own clothing and box them up, sharing many of her own items with people who could really use them. "I won't ever again over purchase anything."
After visiting a women's shelter located on the reservation., student Leah Bushell decided to adjust her career goal from becoming a lawyer to using her gift and specializing in assisting battered women.
The trip was part of the interim class, Healthy Living, Loving and Learning, conducted by Kelly Mattis, director of counseling Services at BVU. She is not surprised by the reactions of the students; this is the fourth year the class has been offered and each year the students react this compassionately.
The instructor grew up in the Dakotas and knows that the reservation is one of the poorest areas in the nation. She has contacts with people at the reservation and each year asks for a list of service projects that she and the students can assist with.
The class begins with two weeks of classroom work where the students participate in activities to learn more about themselves, how they function in relationships and how to take part in community service projects. The trip is not only a service project but serves as test for the students.
"I always hope they will learn more about themselves, be sensitive to the needs of other people and even have a little fun," commented Kelly.
There were 16 students (and two BVU staff persons) taking part in the trip.
Prior to leaving, the students gathered up used clothing from other students and staff members to distribute to the Native Americans.
Wal-Mart generously donated toward the purchase of toiletries, paper goods and food for a community dinner. The campus ministries also donated a sizable amount of money for the cause.
This year, it was a group decision that besides taking care of the people in the reservation, they would take care of the animals living there as well. Kelly purchased 15 bags (20 pounds each) of dog and cat food.
The gesture was appreciated by the animals (which gave many enthusiastic kisses to the students feeding them) but also led them to many people in need.)
"They were skeptical of us at first, feeding the animals," said Dana, "but they have as much spirit as anyone. Dogs are man's best friend so it was like helping bring everyone's spirits up."
"We met Mary who had a pack of five dogs circling around her," said Kelly. "She was walking to her daughter's house about a block away in frigid temperatures. Some of the students exited the van to feed the dogs while I welcomed her in and delivered her to her daughter's home. She was wearing a light spring coat and water shoes with no socks. She walked with a severe limp as if having arthritis."
The group addressed the needs of Mary and her family.
"Students in the other van spoke to a man who was grateful for the dog food but wondered if we had food for him. It is a helpless feeling to have the best intent and yet be questioned on what we were doing. We returned to the home the next day and offered the family food as they welcomed us into their home. It was then that we discovered that this home, literally, had nothing in the refrigerator. This home was where multiple families lived and the rooms had mattresses on the floor and little other furniture. Home after home we visited had little or no food."
The BVU group prepared and served a meal, as a benefit for the Habitat for Humanity there. The number of people coming out for the meal was lower than expected, in part due to the dollar donation they were asking for to aid the Habitat for Humanity group. So they took the soup and sandwiches door-to-door.
"I was amazed at how respectful all the people were," said Sheila Haugen. "They were not greedy at all. We'd ask how many sandwiches they wanted and they'd say four. And we went into their houses there would be like 10 family members."
The group also visited the White Buffalo Calf Woman Society - the local domestic violence shelter for women.
A trip to the elementary school was an emotional experience for many of the students. Because funds have been cut, the classrooms are run with the least number of teachers as possible.
Ashley Farmer, an education major, was saddened by what she saw; teachers struggling to take care of the large classes with little resources and help, and dealing with students that here, would receive help in resource rooms, as well as their regular students.
"The kids talked all about the terrible home life that they have; they didn't have time to focus on their work." The teacher told the college students they don't even expect that the children will turn in homework; it's not a priority in their lives.
The college students were pleased, however, to see that the students are offered free breakfast and lunch - and teachers make sure they eat.
"They didn't leave a speck of food, and here, I just think of all the trays of food that go in the garbage," said Sheila.
Another of the highlights of the visit was an invitation from one of the spiritual leaders to visit his property where religious ceremonies are held.
"It was an awesome feeling being there; it was so calm," remarked Ashley.
"It was powerful to hear him talk," Dana added.
When the trip was over, it was difficult for the college students to leave. They had become a close group, many of whom did not know each other prior to the experience. They stayed up until 4 a.m. the morning they were to depart, sharing appreciation for each other.
"This was a test for all of us," said student Flor Johnsen. "We became connected, like a family. This is how I feel, the Indians were here first and they are crying for justice. It's important to help people, like those from the tsunami. But we need to take a look in our own backyard first; there are a lot of people out there crying for help. The people at Rosebud don't have much, but they do have family - and we need to learn a lesson from that."
Kelly concluded, "It is nearly impossible to measure what this trip provided for the college students. We came to the consensus that the people of South Dakota gave us much more through their spirit of appreciation and sincerity that what we were able to provide with out humble resources. It is my hope these 16 college students will be changed forever and take their experience to live with more compassion and empathy than they possessed, initially."