The Pine Ridge Indian Reservation isn't on the radar for many people's summer vacations. In fact, Pine Ridge Indian Reservation isn't even a recognizable name to most people.
But for 12 Western Reserve Academy students, alongside two faculty members, Pine Ridge was the number one destination for their summer travels.
Located in the southern part of South Dakota, Pine Ridge has been home to the Oglala Lakota people since 1889. With a population of nearly 29,000 people, they have a lifestyle rich in culture, tradition and history. Pine Ridge is home to the Badlands National Park and the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre, a sad yet historic site that reminds visitors of the 150 Lakota people who were killed and the 51 that were wounded in the massacre of the Lakota people by United States troops in 1890.
Pine Ridge is located in the third-poorest county in the United States. The county has the second-lowest life expectancy in the hemisphere, coming in right behind Haiti. According to information from Re-Member, there is an unemployment rate between 80 and 90 percent, a per capita income of $4,000 and an alcoholism rate of nearly 80 percent.
The Western Reserve group spent a week with Re-Member, an organization focused on helping the people of the reservation. The WRA volunteers fixed housing, built furniture and repaired other necessary items. They also learned about the history and culture of the reservation while visiting historic sites and talking with the residents.
Natalie Davies, part of WRA's science department and the outreach travel coordinator, is a South Dakota native. While she had never traveled to Pine Ridge before, her father had told her about it after he took a trip there.
Davies had, however, gone on several service trips in the past, including El Salvador, Alabama and the Dominican Republic. She has planned all of Western Reserve's service trips.
The other faculty member along on the trip was Matt Gerber, director of educational technology and part of WRA's history program. Gerber hadn't done any service traveling with WRA before, but has gone on volunteer trips to Mexico and Washington D.C. with schools he had previously taught at.
Part of WRA's Service Learning Travel Program, which will be going into it's third year, the students were on the reservation from May 25 to 31. Other trip locations have included Alabama and the Dominican Republic.
"The purpose of this trip is to get all the benefits of service work with the cultural immersion experience," Davies says.
Before the trip, students were engaged in the culture through meetings, readings and extensive background information about the reservation.
Students had to apply through a fairly short process, and nearly all the students were accepted. It was open to freshman, sophomores and juniors. Three of the students who went had also gone on previous service trips to the Dominican Republic.
"It is on my bucket list to build my own house. Using power tools, making bunk beds and repairing houses felt like a dream come true," said Lynn Yang, a sophomore at WRA who went on the Pine Ridge trip.
The group stayed at the Re-Member facilities, which are located right on the reservation.
Service work also included replacing siding and trailer skirting as well as building and delivering bunk beds.
On several of the days, the group took tours around the reservation, visiting the historic sites, the college on the reservation, the area radio station and a museum.
Each night, there was a speaker from the reservation to talk about prominent issues. One speaker even shared the Lakota creation story with the group.
The bunk beds are a staple project of Re-Member. After building them, groups would be able to deliver them to the families, along with a mattress, pillows, sheets, blankets and stuffed animals.
Many of the homes on the reservation are multi-generational, housing many children who otherwise would sleep on the floor.
"It isn't just a bed that we're giving them, it's a bedroom," Davies says.
The unique thing about Re-Member which has been on the reservation since 1997, according to Davies, is their philosophy.
"It says a lot about the organization that they've been on the Rez for so long and continue to have a demand for their services," she says. For example, their area of South Dakota reaches below-freezing temperatures in the winter. Most families cannot afford to heat their houses, and have only one option -- burn any wood that they have in their house. For many, this includes the wooden bunk beds. Instead of stopping to build these for the families, Re-Member switched to untreated wood, so that it wouldn't contaminate their houses.
"Seeing the condition of the house and knowing where and how the kids are living is the hardest part," Yang says. "Children were literally sleeping on the floor before we delivered the bed."
Gerber recalled a specific encounter that had stuck with him.
Having a background in construction after owning his own company, Gerber was asked to repair a sink of a family on the reservation.
After talking with the couple, he learned that the husband was part of the American Indian Movement and the wife the was niece of the late Russell Means, a prominent Oglala Sioux activist who also appeared in several movies, including "The Last of the Mohicans."
"The hardest part was seeing the cycle of poverty," Gerber says.
Davies hopes to return to the reservation year after year to continue the work they are doing there.
"Most people are aware that this is going on, but aren't aware that it's happening in the U.S.," Davies says.
As classes resume, students and faculty members will have follow-up meetings and discussions about the trip and the lessons they brought back. v