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“The Problem Has a Face”

Part two: Alternative Spring Break 2008 — on the reservation in Dupree, S.D.

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The Cheyenne River Sioux Indian Reservation covers more than two million acres of South Dakota’s poorest soil. A nine-year drought has left the land parched, and the wind whips mercilessly across the prairie. And it’s remote — the reservation is more than a three-hour drive from tourist attractions such as Mount Rushmore and the Badlands. Out here, it’s possible to drive for 200 miles without seeing a gas station or a convenience store. Residents don’t bother buying cell phones; they don’t work.

This year, 11 Boston University student volunteers traveled more than 1,800 miles to spend a week on the reservation and to work with Native American children at the Sioux YMCA in Dupree, S.D. Their trip, arranged by BU’s Community Service Center, was part of Alternative Spring Breaks, a program that each year sends hundreds of volunteers into disaster zones and troubled communities across the country.

BU Today’s Vicky Waltz was a chaperone on the trip and recorded some of the students’ experiences, including that of Cherisse Cavan (COM’09), who shares her story below.

During the weeks leading up to our trip to Dupree, my friends asked me if I was going anywhere special for Spring Break and I’d tell them, “Yes! I’m going to South Dakota!” And most people thought that it was pretty weird.

But you know what? I have had the best time here. The people I have met have influenced me in ways that I could have never imagined possible. And while I learned a lot from the adults, it was the kids who really opened my eyes. I spent a lot of time working one-on-one with the teenagers, and it was extremely rewarding to hear the personal accounts of what it’s like to grow up here.

My friend Eva Mitchell (CAS’10) and I started organizing this trip back in October, so I was aware of the statistics on the reservation. I knew the poverty rates, and I knew the alcoholism and suicide rates. But those statistics were still nothing more than numbers until we got here and I saw for myself how dire the situation is. The problem has a face. Everything has come to life.

On the surface, the children in Dupree appear to be like kids you’d see anywhere. They play football, they chase one another and run through the creek — and it seems like they’re always laughing. And if I hadn’t spoken individually with some of the teenagers, I may have left here with a really warped sense of reality. I may have left thinking that the statistics were wrong.

Most of the kids I ended up working with are in junior high, so they’re about 12 or 13 years old. When I was that age, I was always worried that I wasn’t cool enough or that I wasn’t wearing the right clothes. And I thought I had it pretty rough, you know? But these kids — they’re literally fending for their lives. They go home, and they’re beaten. They go home, and there’s no food.

On Wednesday, we took a group of teenagers to College Night in Eagle Butte. There were representatives from four schools, including BU. And on the way home, I ended up riding on the bus with the teens, and everyone was kind of laughing and joking around, and I noticed that one girl, Jaime,* wasn’t talking much. After all the other kids went home, Jaime and I sat on the porch in front of the YMCA, and I asked her what was wrong. At first, she talked about the typical problems that all teenagers have. She was fighting with her mom, and she said the other girls don’t like her and she doesn’t fit in at school, no matter how hard she tries. But then it was like an onion that you just keep peeling and peeling, and each thing she told me got worse.

Her brother has ADHD, and he gets beaten up all the time at school. The situation at home is really rough. Her mother is on her second partner, and the first boyfriend was really abusive. Jaime told me, “I was alive for that.” And just hearing her say that — it sent chills through me.

She told me about some of the other kids, too — kids we’ve met. One gets beaten up by her aunts. Another drinks with her aunts, and she’s only 11. She told me story after story, and I can’t doubt them because of the statistics I read back in October. By the end of the conversation, she was sitting there crying, and I was crying, too.

I didn’t promise her anything. I couldn’t. I couldn’t tell her that it was all going to go away. But I did tell her that it’s possible to propel yourself beyond the situation and it’s possible to succeed no matter what. And she’s done that. She told me she’s never touched a cigarette or taken drugs or drunk alcohol. I think part of the reason I started crying was I had read all of those scary statistics, and I was so happy to have found someone who is trying to beat all of the odds. She does really well in school, and she was recently selected to go to a six-week summer math camp at a college in North Dakota. She wants to be a doctor. In fact, she’s already talked to a dean from Harvard. He found out about her from another volunteer, and he actually called her. He told her to call him back when she’s 18 and applying for college.

Another girl I talked to was Christine, who’s 12. She’s a singer, and she has a beautiful voice. Tonight after all of the little kids went home, the teenagers gave us a tour of Dupree. I walked with Christine, and she told me about her encounters with alcohol and drugs. She’s tried them both. When she was 11, someone spiked her drink with Jack Daniels, and she didn’t realize it until she was stumbling around drunk. She’s also smoked cigarettes with her boyfriend, but she doesn’t like them.

Her house burned down two years ago, and her family has been homeless ever since. They stay with various family members, a few months here, another month there. But things are looking up for them now. They have a house in Dupree that they’ll move into as soon as it’s fixed up. She’s close to her mom, which is a really good thing, because a lot of kids here don’t have much support from their families. She has ambition. She wants to be a veterinarian, and until this week, she wanted to go to college in North Carolina. Now she says she wants to go to BU.

The last person I talked to was A.J. We met him during the Easter egg hunt in Cherry Creek. He’s only 18, and he’s already been in prison. He’s lived in Cherry Creek all of his life, except for a few years when he was bouncing around the country. He’s been to Georgia, Montana, Iowa, and California. Later on, he told me the reason he’s moved around so much is because he’s in a gang. He’s a Crip, and he wears a blue bandana tied around the knuckles on his left hand, and he has a tattoo of three blue dots by his left eye. He got out of a sobriety academy about a month ago, and now he’s clean and planning to go to Utah to join the Job Corps. But he’s worried that he’s going to lose all credibility because of the tattoos.

He loves music, and he likes to rap. Now, when things go wrong, he says he turns to his music. When we were getting ready to leave, someone told him I could beat box, which is a huge lie, but he said he wanted to freestyle with me, and then he just started rapping. He rapped about growing up in Cherry Creek, and he freestyled while pointing to his house and describing what he did on the streets. It was pretty amazing. I hope he gets to Utah. He wants to get a job making music, and then he wants to come back to Cherry Creek and help the people there.

*Names have been changed.

Click here to read part one of BU Today’s Alternative Spring Breaks coverage. Click here to watch part three of BU Today’s Alternative Spring Break coverage

Read more Alternative Spring Breaks stories.

Returned volunteers from Dupree, S.D., and Tahlequah, Okla., shared stories of 63,087 Miles of Service at the Howard Thurman Center on Wednesday, March 26. They discussed the preservation of Native American culture and ideals, education, health, and housing concerns. On Thursday, March 27, at 6 p.m., students who volunteered for environmental projects will discuss their experiences and such issues as global climate change, deforestation, the presence of invasive species, and other threats to our ecosystem.

Vicky Waltz can be reached at vwaltz@bu.edu.

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