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Hope and Help in Pine Ridge
~ Mary Burrows
During the time of the Green Comet,
on a bright, windy February day I
traveled east to Oglala Lakota
Nation (OLN) in southwest South
The asphalt ribbon crossed
short-grass prairie, ancient river beds, and remnants of the Western Interior Seaway and the Cretaceous, as witnessed by the white-pink-gray bluffs against the brilliant sky and formations rounded by ancient White Clay Creek in the low lands.
Pine Ridge Village bustles in the morning. In its immediate environs, it reminds one of many small towns...fast food, gas station, grocery store, post office, churches, dispensaries. Left at the stoplight and left again to an unassuming building behind a bank of dormant lilac bushes: the Reconciliation Center of Pine Ridge (RCPR), adorned with a mural by artist Focus Smith.
Since May 2021, the center has been a haven of hope and a day shelter for the unhoused people of the OLN. The day shelter is managed by Virgil and offers clients showers, coffee, laundry services, and food. The basement holds a common room with couches, chairs, television, and other entertainment. Across the highway, Billy Mills Hall (BMH) shares space with the post office. The BMH gymnasium, with no facilities, houses the night shelter, where currently 50 people sleep on cots and mattresses on the floor.
RCPR is far more than a shelter for the unhoused. Iglutheca of the neighboring community of Oglala, administers services that include counseling designed to help lift clients out of addiction, homelessness, and poverty. Their goal is to foster “mutual trust, respect, and understanding while addressing the deep poverty that exists on the reservation.” Individuals' basic and psycho-social needs are assessed by Abram, director of Iglutheca. Clients are counseled about making choices, taking responsibility, setting goals, and achieving sobriety.
“So far, we have seen success in getting people into addiction treatment, jobs, and long-term housing,” according to Abram. “By meeting people’s basic needs, we give them a solid footing so they can get sober, get their heads straight to reconcile with family, or plan the next steps. We provide case management where we help the individual to make an individual plan for their housing, income, sobriety, and spirituality.“
The RCPR began as a cross-cultural immersion center, where groups of up to 24 would occupy the center, cook their own meals, and experience speeches and presentations and other events which fostered a mutual understanding between Native and other cultures. As Pastor Dan said, “Groups are here to learn about Native culture, to learn, not to preach.” Immersion experiences were suspended during the COVID pandemic, but have since resumed. Groups sometimes attend with self-funded work projects to assist residents of OLN. Talking Circles encouraging openness and sharing are held each evening. Fees paid by groups go to speakers and presenters. The center is fully staffed by Native Americans.
RCPR is more than a shelter. It is a service center, where employees serve by giving service to the community. Under the auspices of Lutheran Lakota Shared Ministries, a Job Corps center operates in Pine Ridge. Participants are members of the local community who use their skills and abilities to assist their neighbors while earning an income to care for their families.
RCPR operates a matching energy assistance program. They also have a far-reaching and impactful ministry to the youth and children of the area. Every week day, 70 school children are provided two meals, along with food backpacks for weekends. There are many activities and programs to benefit the young people of OLN. Staff are trained as coaches in the Encircled Method, where youth are supported “to discover their gifts, develop their vision and plan, encourage their spiritual identity, and encircle them with a supportive group from the community that will be with them through the difficult and celebratory times.”
RCPR now uses the kitchen to prepare two meals a day, six days a week, for clients of the shelter. The program started out feeding bologna sandwiches five days a week a few years ago, and has since grown to about 100 meals a day, an impactful and supportive service for their clients. This is in addition to the meals for the young people.
Common Basket is a project that provides quilts, blankets, towels, hygiene kits, and diapers to those in need. Because clients have access to showers, there is always a need for large towels at the center. RCPR always welcomes donations of diapers, which can be directly shipped; large towels; and hygiene items.
Tony does initial intake interviews of clients, who are now mostly singles and couples. Recently, RCPR received a grant of $508,000 from the State of South Dakota to address Native-based homelessness and through that was able to place 18 families in permanent homes.
Pastor Dan wears the Executive Director hat, which means he is all things to all occasions. His right hand person is Mary, cook and housemother, laundress and cleaner. He also manages fund-raising to support the operation of the shelter. The project is supported by groups such as the Evangelical Lutheran Church of America (ELCA), the Episcopal Diocese of South Dakota, Feeding South Dakota, Community Action, and by private donations. Current tribal government offers no support for the center other than allowing the use of BMH gym, and they want to rescind that in favor of basketball, which means the night shelter may have to find a new location.
Clients are expected to meet certain conditions, such as keeping the area clean, being responsible for their own decisions, and being respectful to staff and others. Client should be engaged and invested in their futures, and all assistance in the safe place that is RCPR strives for the goal of permanent solutions.
Pastor Dan emphasized the mission of helping people. “I love the place,” he said. “I love what I do.”
For him, “There is no such thing as a 'normal' day!!”