By Olivia H. May and Mary B. O’Neill, PhD | firstname.lastname@example.org
Last summer Olivia May (18) and her mother Mary O’Neill volunteered with the non-profit Simply Smiles on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in La Plant, South Dakota, where they have worked since 2009. Olivia was a summer intern and Mary was one of the scores of weekly volunteers who come to the Reservation each summer.
While Simply Smiles is headquartered in Bridgeport, CT, they have a strong volunteer presence in our area. Several local organizations have sent individuals and groups to “the Rez,” including Salisbury Congregational Church, Silver Lake Conference Center, Millbrook School, and Sisters for Peace. The Alice & Richard Henriquez Memorial Fund of the Berkshire Taconic Community Foundation and the Christian Action Committee of the Salisbury Congregational Church have provided grants for Olivia to volunteer on the Reservation for the past three summers.
What follows is a mother-daughter reflection on their time spent embedded in the Lakota community who call La Plant, South Dakota their home.
Three summers ago, when I spent my first week as a volunteer with Simply Smiles, I knew it was something that I couldn’t only do once. Even now, I don’t understand how people can volunteer on the Reservation with Simply Smiles and not feel a deep need to return.
Once is not enough
On the way home after that first week, I was already planning to go back the next summer – for longer. The following summer I returned for a two-week volunteering stint and once again felt it was not enough time to dedicate to the organization and the people it works with.
In getting to know some of the summer interns I realized that I wanted to spend my summers how they did – using latrines, taking infrequent and freezing showers, and developing back issues from the number of piggy-back rides given.
I talked to the Simply Smiles Volunteer Coordinator, Samantha Steinmetz about the possibility of becoming an intern and we both thought that was a good idea. I once again was planning my return to the Rez on the plane flight home.
People ask me why I return each summer. Every time I get on the shuttle bus to the airport for the return home, I deeply feel that I need to go back. There is no doubt that this is the most worthwhile way I could be spending my summers. It’s hard to put into words, but I’ll try to explain my passion for working with this organization and the people in La Plant through a few anecdotes.
Life on the Reservation is hard, especially for the kids that grow up there. One of the most important things that Simply Smiles does on the Reservation is run a summer camp. Camp runs weekdays all summer, and let me tell you, each day of camp was an adventure. It didn’t always go well, but small daily victories made it all worth it.
My favorite day was River Day. Every Wednesday, we took the big red school bus to the river. At any given time there were at least five splash fights, three people jumping in the water and several piggy-back rides. It was pure chaos, but was always a hit with the kids and the volunteers, especially when the temperature reached above 100 degrees for several days in a row.
Ties that bind
Volunteer groups from communities, high schools, colleges, and houses of worship filter in and out every week, which can make it difficult for them to develop close relationships with the kids. As a summer intern though, I spent a lot of concentrated time with the kids. Some of them even remembered me from my previous times on the Reservation. As a result, I made deep connections with several of the kids.
For several reasons, the kids on the Reservation are reluctant to trust the volunteers at first. However, I think one of the most rewarding, but difficult parts of being an intern was how close I became with the kids. These new bonds were an amazing thing and I’m so grateful to have gotten to know the kids as well as I have.
This can also be emotionally taxing at times. A lot of the kids have difficult home lives and experience things that no child should. I, along with the other interns, became confidants for the kids. I felt honored that they felt that they could trust me and my peers. However, this could be extremely stressful, overwhelming, and deeply saddening still, maintaining and developing these relationships is one of the most compelling reasons why I return every summer.
The weekly basketball clinic targeted a group of teenage girls who are amazing basketball players and could no doubt play in college. Part of the goal is to help them realize that. I always looked forward to these practices even though it meant missing the weekly visit to Dairy Queen with the volunteers.
These athletes were very close and kept to themselves, except when dominating volunteers and interns alike in the frequent basketball tournaments. For a while, I couldn’t forge any sort of relationship with them. Until finally, when picking teams, I heard my name called. My subpar basketball skills were impressive enough to have me drafted by the girls to be on their team. It’s no big deal or anything (actually, it’s a huge deal – kind of like being recruited to UConn’s Huskies).
Lean on me
As an intern, bad days were inevitable and we all occasionally had one. Whether it was exhaustion, difficulty with one of the kids during camp, or the negative aspects of reservation life became overwhelming that day, I knew that I could rely on the other interns for support. I feel so lucky to have met and worked with such an incredible group of peers and am so happy I can call them my friends.
I don’t think I’ll ever be surrounded by such a dedicated, caring, and fun group of people – until this summer when I return as an eight-week intern! Having such a great group to rely on and vice versa was something I never took for granted. My experience would be very different if not for the other interns and the Simply Smiles staff.
The adults in town were also an important presence. Ford is an Elder in the community with endless knowledge about Lakota history and personal anecdotes that he’s always willing to share.
Hanna, a fellow intern, and I were driving a group of the kids home after camp and came across Ford walking on the side of the road. We pulled over to talk and he informed us he was walking in 100 degree heat to Eagle Butte, a mere 32 miles away, to get his car, which was being fixed.
We called the staff to ask if we could drive Ford so he wouldn’t have to hitch-hike. During the drive, he shared stories of attending Indian boarding school, growing up on the Reservation and how much it’s changed since. While in Eagle Butte we stopped at Dairy Queen and treated Ford to a burger and some ice cream. While we ate, he told us how grateful he was for Simply Smiles and the interns.
After any interaction with Ford, you’re left feeling humbled and grateful that he chose to bestow his wisdom upon you. That afternoon in particular was an extremely special experience that I’m so lucky I had.
South Dakota dreamin’ on a winter’s day
The five weeks I spent as an intern were tiring – emotionally and physically. But I’d be hard-pressed to find a summer job more fulfilling and worthwhile than volunteering with Simply Smiles and the amazing kids in La Plant.
I knew that every task I was assigned while there had a purpose that would affect the lives of Reservation kids. Whether it was pushing Hunter on the swing, playing basketball with Ashton, painstakingly measuring and re-measuring trim for the doors for Kris’s new room, or driving two hours to Walmart and checking out with eight carts of food for community meals, I was committed to doing the best work I could at all times.
I constantly find myself thinking about the people I met on the Reservation and there isn’t a day where I don’t catch myself looking forward to this summer when I can be out there again.
I wish I could tell you I went on the trip to the Reservation with Simply Smiles primarily from a deep-seated need to serve, but that’s not entirely true. The driving force was a need to get out of my own head. The opportunity happened to be familiar and proximate, and ultimately life changing for me.
Out of the comfort zone
Big changes swirled on my horizon last summer, leaving me disoriented and a bit untethered. Kids leaving for school, a career change, and another birthday that cemented me solidly in mid-life, left me in a funk – nothing bad was happening, but I felt icky.
Having taught a college course on the philosophy of happiness, I knew what Buddhism, the ancient Greeks, neuroscience, and psychology had to say about creating happiness, well-being, and resilience. I had lectured students on the importance of altruism, service, finding a larger purpose, and venturing outside their comfort zones. Now it was time for me to practice what I had been preaching.
I like my creature comforts. I’m a proper bed and private toilet and shower kind of gal. They have always been non-negotiables for me. I didn’t think I could, or maybe didn’t want to, hack the rougher living required on the Rez, albeit only for a week.
This past summer I determined that this trip was what I needed and that I’d regret not having this time to see Olivia doing something she felt called to do in some way. After we sent her off to South Dakota the idea continued to form.
The Universe cooperated in every way. I had enough frequent flier miles – with one mile to spare – to get to Rapid City. Simply Smiles found a week for me that overlapped with Olivia. They even allowed me to take a blow-up camp mattress, which filled me with some measure of relief. Now I just had to deal with the 30 other volunteers sleeping beside me in the room and the outhouse!
My husband, Jeff, offered to go with me to ease my nervousness. Yet, something inside me told me that I needed to do this on my own. I was craving this small test of character and a chance to give back on my own terms.
Before the trip, I read about Native American history. What I read disturbed me greatly. Our treatment of Native peoples has been, and continues to be atrocious. Broken treaties, obliterating a culture in the name of civilization, creating dependence and fostering neglect, and killing and plundering in the name of Manifest Destiny were aspects of history I hadn’t been taught – ever. I was humbled, deeply embarrassed by the exploitative historical foundations of my own privilege.
Once on the Rez we were explained the flow of the week. Mornings were for work projects. Afternoons were spent on a summer camp for the town’s children playing games with them, creating crafts, and brokering peace over jump ropes and Lego pieces. In addition, there were several community meals we would host.
We met the staff and interns, among them was Olivia. They had an easy rapport with each other and a joyful approach to their tasks. What a truly remarkable group of young adults! I was so proud that Olivia had chosen this peer group. They were smart, funny, empathetic and kind, courageous, and true critical thinkers and problem solvers – and they worked hard, I mean really hard. Up early each morning and to bed late each night they supervised volunteers, cooked our meals, facilitated work projects and camp, managed mischief, gave countless hugs, and made volunteers feel valued and taken care of. A week with this group and you’d have no worries about the future of our world.
My team’s assigned work project was installing the kitchen in Delema’s home. Susan, Chuck, and I must finish by week’s end so that Delema and her five grandchildren could finally move back in.
I learned to measure twice and cut once, use two kinds of power saws, and the limits of wood glue against the forces of gravity. I also learned the power of Zach, our Simply Smiles project manager. Slight and bookish, he would calmly stand, tapping his index finger on his lips and review our progress, almost summoning the Jedi Force to have the job completed on time – and to his exacting standards.
After a hearty lunch we prepared for the mad rush of campers. You heard them before you saw them as they stampeded through and around the building running to their favorite activities or being swept up in the arms of their favorite interns. They ranged from toddlers to teens, bold to quiet, and athletic to artistic.
This is the part of the day that the older volunteers, me included, found challenging. The trust and affection shown to the interns and teenage volunteers didn’t easily extend to those over 30. I naively thought the transitive property would apply – the kids liked Olivia, Olivia is my daughter, therefore the kids will like me. I was quickly disabused of that notion! My mere presence on the Reservation that week didn’t mean I earned the trust of these kids – nor should it have. I needed to work for it.
The first day of camp was a disaster for me. I couldn’t find an access point and I didn’t quite know what to do about it. I wanted to go home. But being in Big Sky country, with a pow-wow circle to sit and think, can provide answers.
The next camp day I decided to stop trying so hard and look for an small opening. One sporty girl wanted to play wiffle ball, but it wasn’t on the day’s schedule. I saw her standing alone and made my pitch. “I’ll play wiffle with you, but you have to let me help you improve your form and stance,” I offered. She shrugged nonchalantly and off we went. Within ten minutes a game of sorts had formed. My brief softball career in college was finally paying dividends!
Minute by minute
I trimmed back my aspirations with the children. I started thinking in terms of minutes. Can I change this child’s next ten minutes? After all, life is made up of these smaller units of time stacked on top of each other.
Simply Smiles understands this extraordinarily well. They have a deep respect for what the Lakota Sioux Tribe has endured and survived, an appreciation of simply creating a smile, and the patience to wait for residents of La Plant to let them know what the community wants – whether it’s a community center, a food garden, or an archery range and horseshoe pitch – and then work with them to achieve it.
Wisdom of the elders
Community dinners brought a chance to meet elders of the tribe: the women who create extraordinary quilts, the men who play horseshoes, and the stories they told – of being torn from their families and sent to boarding school; of being denied their families, their language, and their culture; of the loss of their children to addiction and suicide; of treaties made and broken; and of unemployment and dependence so old it’s part of the dusty earth. Yet, their strength in the adversity and suffering and their acquired wisdom is inspiring and humbling.
Being helped by helping
Before we knew it, the day had come to leave. Our work was done and it was performed refreshingly without ego, which I attribute to the clarity of our common goals. Having this kind of focus on a purpose – the “why” of our week – was empowering and motivating.
I worked hard that week and contributed my best efforts, but I left having been helped much more than helping, leaving me feeling weirdly guilty. And I was provided a chance to forge another bond with my daughter – a shared pool of meaning.
Regarding that fear of outhouses, I found respect for the power of an occasional laxative – further illustrating that in life it’s also okay to receive help and depend on someone or something to break a negative cycle. In the end, learning how to lend and receive help are the flip sides of the same coin.
To find out more about Simply Smiles, visit www.simplysmiles.org. To volunteer on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota, or at the Home for Children in Oaxaca, Mexico, contact Samantha Steinmetz at email@example.com. Silver Lake Conference Center in Sharon, CT is hosting a youth volunteer trip to the Simply Smiles Home for Children in Oaxaca, Mexico in April. For more information, call Heather at (860) 364-5526.