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Nursing and Occupational Therapy Students Serve and Learn at Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation

Sacred Heart University partners with nonprofit Simply Smiles for the service learning trip

A group of Sacred HeartUniversity occupational therapy (OT) and nursing students and faculty recentlyparticipated in a week-long service learning program at the Cheyenne RiverSioux Tribe Reservation in La Plant, SD, an area with a population of171 people.

Teamed up with Simply Smiles, a nonprofit organization dedicated to improving the lives of impoverished children and families, the SHU group worked in the school, a clinic on the reservation and the tribal hospital located in Eagle Butte.

Jody Bortone, associate dean of the College of Health Professions and an associate professor of occupational therapy, and Linda Strong, an associate professor and director of community partnerships, piloted the first trip in 2015 as a summer program, because they have a passion for tribal advocacy, both personally and professionally. They returned for the most recent trip to continue helping the community.

During the trip, the OT students worked in the schools with teachers and students, observing children with disabilities, and showing teachers and children different ways of learning and playing.

Students and faculty said they saw the sad truth about life on the reservations. The tribal school is K-12. Children struggle with learning, present with difficulties in reading and there is a high drop-out rate of students prior to graduation.

Clinics the nursing students visited served very few people. One walk-in clinic only saw about three to six patients per day.

Residents of LaPlant present a variety of medical and mental health problems, including alcoholism, drug abuse, obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular issues, said SHU faculty. In addition, the suicide rate for adolescents is 150 percent higher than the national average.  Access to health care is a huge challenge for this community.  “Many of the adolescents don’t understand the consequences of risk-taking. Many die from car accidents related to poor weather and fast driving, as well as from alcoholism and drug abuse,” Strong said.

“We want to stress that the focus of this trip is not just on the youth in La Plant,” said Sharon McCloskey, a clinical assistant OT professor. “There is a need to bring health-related education and services to adults and the elderly as well.”

Amid all the negativity and heartache that encompasses the Reservation, SHU students and faculty who visited there believe they are making an impact. “We managed to gain their trust. They have come to accept Sacred Heart as a partner and friend,” said Linda Cook, professor and program director for the clinical nurse leader track.

Bortone, Strong and faculty on the trip said the students were able to gain a better understanding of their roles in the professional workplace as nursing and occupational therapy worked together, learned how to collaborate, and developed respect for each other.

Even though La Plant is in the United States, it is still considered a global health experience because of the extreme differences in culture. Bortone and Strong expressed hope that one day, students from other health professions will be able to join the service learning trips and work with this community.