Nine Sacred Heart University students and three faculty and staff members recently traveled with the Bridgeport-based nonprofit organization Simply Smiles to the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation near La Plant, S.D., to work on the Lakota Reservation.
Simply Smiles works to provide bright futures for impoverished children and their families. Previously, a SHU contingent worked with Simply Smiles in Oaxaca, Mexico. This time, the students making the trip did so as part of a first-time, one-credit, May intersession course. They described it as an extensive and amazing experience that enabled them to get to know the Native Americans on the Lakota Reservation and the many hardships they face.
Throughout the week, the Sacred Heart team spent mornings and early afternoons working on construction projects and improving the reservation and the Simply Smiles compound, said Karreem Mebane, director of SHU’s Volunteer Programs & Service Learning. The group built boardwalks, latrines and other structures, Mebane said.
Around 3 p.m. each day, the group stopped construction and got ready for afterschool camp with the children. “We did science experiments, arts and crafts, sports, all kinds of activities,” said rising senior Rachel Vogt, 22, a social-work major and group leader on the trip. The group made sure the children had a fun and enriching time, Vogt said.
They spent their evenings reflecting on the day’s events and on three occasions, they attended community meals. “People from the community would come and eat with us,” Vogt said. “It was nice, interacting with the adults in the community.”
Vogt, who has participated in service learning trips before, said she had never been to a reservation and was curious about it. “It was an eye-opening experience,” she said.
During the short time she was there, she witnessed many of the social issues plaguing the community, including poverty. “I definitely felt like we got the children and adults to forget about whatever was bothering them. They talked and shared their stories, and we took their minds off of things,” Vogt said.
Ron Hamel, a psychology professor at SHU, and Gerald Reid, a sociology professor, took part in the trip and presented lectures to the group. Hamel’s talk focused on the psychological issues facing those on the reservation, and Reid’s talk was more about the Lakota people’s history.
“It was definitely interesting to learn about,” Vogt said. “I feel like when you learn about these subjects in school, you don’t really get the full truth.”
Reid said he was proud of the students who made the trip. “I am confident that they have laid down a path for many SHU students, faculty and staff to follow. Personally, I am looking forward to being part of the work to support the people of Cheyenne River in taking control of their lives and building their future,” he said.
Mebane said students tend to get anxious or homesick when they are away on service-learning trips, but that didn’t occur this time. Even when a terrible, 90-minute rain storm came through town, students stayed calm and relaxed. “They were troupers. They were very supportive of one another,” Mebane said.