“It Really Put Things in Perspective”

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

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 Break, 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 Daniel Huynh (ENG’08), who shares his story below.

My decision to participate in Alternative Spring Breaks was kind of on a whim. I decided to go the day before registration. And that spur-of-the-moment decision was one of the best ones I’ve ever made. We encountered so much kindness on this trip, from the priest who offered us shelter at his church during a blizzard in New York to the Lakota tribal man who prayed for our safety and good health.

When we left Boston, I felt excitement and anticipation. I knew I would have a good time, but I didn’t realize how deeply the experience would affect me. I’m leaving Dupree feeling tremendous hope and joy for humankind.

I chose to work on the reservation mainly because I wanted to work with children. I relate well to kids, probably because I never grew up. I’m going to be an aerospace engineer, but really I’m just a big kid — that’s probably why children like me. They love it when adults act goofy and behave like they’re eight years old again.

The children in Dupree are unlike any children I’ve met anywhere else. They are poor, malnourished, and a lot of them suffer from abuse and molestation at home. And yet, there’s still this childlike innocence about them — an innocence that is somehow more pure than that of other children. I don’t really know how to describe it.

The Sioux YMCA is a refuge for many of the children. Even if they’re struggling in school or getting picked on by their classmates or being beaten by their parents, they know that they’ll be safe at the YMCA. For those three hours a day, they can laugh, run, play, eat a good snack, and just be kids.

My least favorite time of the day was six o’clock — when the YMCA closed. The children never wanted to go home. They would linger on the front porch and in the driveway, peeking in the windows at us. Some of them, of course, just wanted more time to play with us, but others didn’t want to leave because they knew what awaited them when they got home. It just made me heartsick.

A few of the other volunteers worked a lot with the teenagers, but I do a better job of connecting with younger children. It’s difficult for me to work with teens, because by the time they reach 11 or 12 years old, they’ve lost a lot of their innocence and it’s harder to reach them. So I spent the majority of my time playing outside with the little ones.

I had a realization this week: physically, I’m not in as good shape as I used to be. These kids wore me out. We played freeze tag, football, sharks and minnows, duck, duck, goose, and kickball. We jumped rope. We climbed trees. And they never got tired. I was exhausted, but somehow I always had more than enough energy to play right along with them.

On our final day here, after the YMCA closed, some of the kids stuck around and took us on a tour of the town. Afterward, one of the little boys was holding onto one of the volunteers, just sobbing because he didn’t want her to leave. Before everyone went home, we all stood on the porch and hugged as a group — a huge spiral hug. But none of the children said good-bye to us. They explained that, in Lakota culture, you don’t say good-bye, because in the Lakota language, good-bye means forever. And they’re hoping that we will come back and visit. They want to see us one last time.

Claudia, the director of the YMCA, gave us a parting gift — a buffalo bone that one of the local artists had painted. And then Claudia began to cry, and she said that it’s because of volunteers like us that she’s able to continue her work on the reservation. She said that oftentimes she becomes very despairing. It’s difficult being surrounded by poverty and constant suffering, to see abuse happening to children you see every day. But she said groups like ours come and we bring so much energy and enthusiasm that it rejuvenates her. She said that because we bring such joy into the children’s lives, it gives her hope for their future and for the future of the reservation.

Her words had half of the group in tears. But I’m glad she talked to us, because even though I really don’t want to go, I feel a little bit better about leaving. Claudia is a constant figure in these children’s lives. She’s making a difference every day. And by helping her, we help the kids.

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

Read more Alternative Spring Breaks stories.

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

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“It Really Put Things in Perspective”

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