Vermont Students Tackle Poverty on South Dakota Reservation

JERICHO, Vt. -- Seven students and a teacher from Mt. Mansfield Union High School are set to travel to one of the poorest counties in the United States to help members of the Oglala Lakota Sioux who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Working with a non-profit organization which assists the Pine Ridge Reservation community, the Vermont students will spend several days learning about the history of the South Dakota Black Hills and working to improve the lives of the Oglala Lakota Sioux. The students’ trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation will be the first of its kind for the volunteers of the MMU Leo Club, which was established in 2011 as an official Leo Club sponsored by the Jericho-Underhill Lions Club. In the past, the club has focused on orchestrating fall clean ups, pancake breakfasts, and helping with the Special Olympics Winter Games.

“We wanted to do something bigger,” said club president Erica Rosmus, 18, explaining why the high school students wanted to go to the South Dakota reservation.  

Will Wright is the advisor for the MMU Leo Club and math teacher at Mt. Mansfield Union High School in Jericho. The students decided to go to the impoverished reservation, Wright said, after he shared the details of his trip there last summer. Wright’s experience— which involved patching roofs, adding insulation to homes and building eight bunk beds for “kids that never had beds before”— left a lasting impression. 

Will Wright, a math teacher at Mt. Mansfield Union High School, is traveling with seven students from the Jericho, Vt., high school to help improve conditions on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

Will Wright, a math teacher at Mt. Mansfield Union High School, is traveling with seven students from the Jericho, Vt., high school to help improve conditions on Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

One of the elements of the MMU Leo Club that makes it different from other community-service oriented clubs, the students said, is that this club is not focused on simply raising funds for charities. Instead, they said they relish the opportunity to “go out in the community and do things.”

The students are heading to the reservation as the nearly 40,000 people who live there are being dealt a blow by recent federal budget cuts, known as the sequester. “With the cuts, the poverty trap that has plagued the reservation for generations looks certain to worsen, with yet more families mired in deprivation,” The New York Times reported last month.

DEVASTATING CONDITIONS

The counties that make up the Pine Ridge Reservation have traditionally been some of the poorest in the United States. “The poverty on Pine Ridge can be described in no other terms than third world,” according to the Pine Ridge, S.D.-based nonprofit, Re-Member.  “It is common to find homes overcrowded, as those with homes take in whoever needs a roof over their heads. Many homes are without running water, and without sewer.”

The statistics portray a harrowing reality: Re-Member estimates the jobless rate on the reservation to be upwards of 90 percent, per capita income at just $4,000 annually, and a suicide rate twice that the national average.

Ana Wright, a senior at MMU, joined the community service club her freshman year.  Ana said she wanted to make the trip because these families “are living in terrible conditions.” “We should definitely help them because no one should be living like this,” she said.

Rosmus, the club president, can’t make the trip this year. She said she hopes it will become an annual tradition that will allow her to participate in the years ahead.

While the dire conditions on the Pine Ridge Reservation might deter most young people from visiting, these seven MMU students stand ready to travel to South Dakota to improve lives of these families living on the reservation.