NAUGATUCK — A group of Naugatuck volunteers traveled to La Plant, S.D. last month to help a Native American tribe.
Seven volunteers from the Naugatuck Congregational Church spent a week on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation to help the Lakota Tribe on multiple community building projects.
The group of volunteers, organized by Rev. Gordon Rankin, with help from Simply Smiles, a Connecticut based non-profit organization founded by Naugatuck native Bryan Nurnberger, constructed a new compost system for a community garden and a new three-seat latrine during their stay.
The group also volunteered at an afterschool camp preparing food and playing games with campers.
The camp was held at the local community center where volunteers ate their meals and slept in sleeping bags on the ground.
“There was no privacy,” Rankin said. “It was a room with just a few closets and no running water.”
On the last day, the group emptied a 53-foot long tractor-trailer filled with components to construct two kit houses.
The volunteers, ranging from 16 to 60 years old, with the help of six Simply Smiles staff members, unloaded and organized all of the components in just seven hours.
“The kits contain everything from the walls to electric and pluming materials,” Rankin said.
According to Rankin, in that seven-hour span, the group moved about 45,500 pounds, nearly 23 tons, of material.
The group organized all the components for other groups to assemble the kits in the coming weeks.
Instead of taking a rest, the group went back to volunteer at the camp and help prepare a community meal.
Rankin said that the driver of the tractor-trailer was beside himself.
“Dan, the truck driver, said that it normally takes 12 hours to unload one truck using forklifts and other machines,” Rankin said. “At a drumming ceremony, he was in tears thinking of what we all did.”
According to Rankin, many of the Lakota people live in old FEMA trailers and don’t have access to basic accommodations like running water or electricity.
“Trying to describe the [Lakota] people is like trying to describe the good, the bad and the ugly,” Rankin said.
Rankin went on to describe how alcohol and depression are at “pandemic levels” on the reservation and how there is no established health care system.
On the Cheyenne River Reservation, according to the Simply Smiles website, there is 95 percent unemployment and a high school drop out rate of 75 percent.
Suicide is also a major problem on the reservation.
Among the preteen population, Rankin noticed how there is an identity issue.
“The elders cherish their Native American culture and traditions, and they want the younger generations to learn it,” Rankin said. “The reality though is that their way of living is harsher than their culture.”
Rankin described the reservation as, “a worthless piece of land.” He said that farming on the reservation is incredibly difficult.
“When you start to dig, all you hit is clay,” Rankin said.
The people living in La Plant have a very difficult time even paying for food because of sky-high prices and how many do not have their own means of transportation, he continued.
On his first trip to La Plant last year, Rankin and other volunteers helped build a trench to help with farming.
Since his first trip, Rankin saw a major difference in how the Lakota people reacted to the volunteers’ presence.
“It was just indescribable,” he said. “There were tearful goodbyes. It was an amazing change.”
Rankin plans to organize another trip to La Plant in May 2015.