Personal Essay: What is your most significant experience?
Pine Ridge, South Dakota is the second poorest county in the U.S. with an alcoholism rate at 89%, but yet our church was extremely excited to visit there and help the Lakota people. This past summer, my most significant experience was a church mission trip to Pine Ridge, South Dakota. I chose this topic because it immensely was a life-changing experience for me. We were gone for approximately eight days. The first three days we spent driving and touring different parts of South Dakota like Custer State Park, Wall Drug, and Mount Rushmore. We stayed in an old ranch home in Custer State park one night. That night was used for connecting with the other 15 people on the trip. I thought it was important for us to connect together so we could grow together spiritually. We played little games and some relaxation was needed. Mount Rushmore Lighting Ceremony was a beautiful and amazing site to see. It wasn’t what teenagers would call “fun” but it was astonishing seeing the heads of the presidents lit up at night. It was nice going site-seeing to start off our trip.
After site seeing, Saturday we left the state park and had a four hour drive to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. I had no idea what to expect. We arrived there later in that day and checked into a Re-Member site which is the non-profit organization that we would be staying with the rest of the week. When we step out of the van, immediately the first thing you notice is dry air and dirt. There were hills and valleys all over the place. There it’s either very flat land, or very hilly land. On the reservation there are few homes every five miles spread out and dirt land. My first thought was “Where’s the vegetation? There was no grass anywhere.” Each day at Re-Member we would have history of the Ogala Lakota people and how or why they arrived at the Indian Reservation. That was important so we could understand the Lakota’s background. In South Dakota they say it is a very dry place and not often is it humid. But for some reason the week we were there their humidity level broke records. We struggled every day, only drinking warm dirty water and it’s very hot when the sun reflects the ground and heat rises. There was no air conditioning on anywhere so every time we traveled, everyone opened their windows. As we were cruising on the dirt roads, layers of sweat and dirt were layering on our skin. It was the most disgusting feeling I have ever felt, everyone wanted to shower. I couldn’t imagine going through that kind of misery every day of your life. Monday started our volunteer work week.
At Re-Member our church was joined with four other churches from around the U.S, from Minnesota, Missouri, and Michigan. It was cool that other churches were there, we got to connect with them and build those relationships. Approximately 95 people were staying with us. We were the biggest group Re-Member has ever had. Some things we were helping the people with were building bunk beds, building outhouses, making gardens, skirting trailers, roofing, and a lot of other physical labor. There are only five homes in the Pine Ridge area otherwise they all live in trailers. To keep the heat in during winter and the cool air in during summer, we skirted a trailer one day. The Lakota people have nothing. They lost it all by alcoholism, drugs, and gambling. There are few very low paying jobs available on the reservation because most of them like medical are white man jobs only. The jobs offered for Indians are construction, most of them try to sell jewelry or craftwork every day, local markets selling beans and carrots, and babysitting. We never saw anyone driving, you see the people walking everywhere on highways, which was a very shocking experience seeing the sweat and sorrow in the people’s faces. This is really crazy to me because everything on the reservation is so spread out and they didn’t have a choice but to walk. As we drive by them, all I felt was pain, a very deep, sad pain. I felt really bad for them as they looked dehydrated and worn out carrying their young on their backs. There was nothing we could do, there were so many of them.
Thursday was the most incredible day of my life. Earlier in the week, some kids built bunk beds. Thursday we finally could deliver them to needy families. My group was looking forward to the delivery all week long. Our church group had extra money that was left over from fundraising so we voted and decided to donate $1000, instead of just delivering beds to the kids, we bought mattresses, mattress pads, sheets, a thin blanket, a pillow, and a book. This meant the world to me. I was very happy and proud that I worked for this. I worked for the Lakota kids happiness. We went to a few homes and set up the beds. We got to bond with the kids and families and learn their history and struggles in everyday life. As we were done, the finishing touch was putting a picture book on the pillow and letting the child take it all in. As they walked in, their faces lit up like the sun. They were extremely happy and full of joy. Knowing now that those people are safer and happier brings a smile to my face. We gave them all hugs and I could feel their tiny hearts pumping a million times a minute. I knew then and there how much this week meant to those kids and also a sign of relief towards the caretakers. I felt a sign of accomplishment and a reassuring part of me knew I was meant to be born fourteen years ago.
That day we lifted 24 people off the trailer floors and now sleeping in clean, comfortable beds. That day, meeting the smiles and joy of the thankful people helped me realize how lucky I am, how great my life is, and how little my problems are compared to the people of Pine Ridge. We also met an amazing Lakota man named Will or “Uncle Will” who prepared a speech for us on how he and his family survive on the reservation and he also sang to us. He makes his living by singing with his son Lil’ Jess, he explained to us how that is his only happiness. That speech meant a lot to me and everyone else there. This man is strong, and surprisingly very positive and has a great outlook on life. During the week I was ready to go home. Now, I want to stay there and dedicate everything I have to help them try and turn their lives around. Thursday, when I held a two year olds hand and showed him his new bed, I can rethink my priorities in life. I will live my life to the fullest and be thankful for everything I have. I have a home, a loving family that will always be here for me, nice friends, clothing, an endless supply of food and clean water, running water to bathe in, transportation, and much more that aren’t even priorities. The children on Pine Ridge have grandmothers taking care of them that won’t always be around for them, sometimes drinking water from a pipe connecting to the Mississippi River, and they are walking miles a day on dangerous highways to get somewhere. Life on Pine Ridge Reservation is hard to survive, these people are strong and will always need our help. I am grateful that I went on this trip, it makes me want to continue helping people to improve their lives. “Mitaku Oyasin” meaning we are all related, is a quote the Lakota people live by. I truly believe in this after that week. Now if everyone would realize how I felt helping the people of Pine Ridge, we would make this world a brighter and happier place to live.