Every year, Jesuit High School coordinates a service immersion experience at the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota via the St. Francis Mission. But no two South Dakota mission trips are ever the same.
Each year, a new group of 10 Jesuit rising seniors operates a Vacation Bible School at a different Catholic church within the reservation, engaging with a different group of Lakota Sioux youth from year to year.
Yet despite so much being different, the outcome is always the same: A tremendously impactful week of service immersion. The Jesuit students are provided the life-altering, hands-on experience of working with youths 1,800 miles away who live in extreme poverty and instability, and the Lakota Sioux children are enriched by the VBS experience. (View a photo slideshow below from their week in South Dakota.)
“I’ll never forget the kids I met; they changed my life forever,” Trent Alexander ’20 said. “This trip really exemplified what ‘Brotherhood’ means. I am extremely thankful my parents allowed me to go on this trip, and I’m grateful that God offered me this opportunity, because my life wouldn’t be the same without it.”
On Saturday, June 8, chaperones Nick Werner and Andy Wood ’92 and the 10 Jesuit rising seniors – Alexander, Riley Buchanan, Bruce Butler, Jake Greenwell, Anthony Kirchner, Charlie Mandt, Riley Martin, Marino Matthews, Daniel Prendes, and Dylan Ross – flew from Tampa to Denver to Rapid City, S.D. They visited Mount Rushmore and the scenic Badlands region while driving a few hours to the reservation, and then on Monday morning they got to work.
St. Agnes Church, under auspices of the St. Francis Mission on the Rosebud Indian Reservation, was the location for this year’s annual Body, Mind, and Soul VBS.
Per usual, breaking down the natural wariness of the local children participating, and everyone becoming comfortable with each other, was the immediate challenge.
“I was blown away by how quickly our boys were able to break through the tough outer shell those kids presented due to the tough situation they are in,” said Wood, who is Jesuit’s Director of Community Service.
The VBS was from 9:00am to 3:00pm daily, and then from 4:00pm until dusk each day the Jesuit students worked to clean up the local graveyard, which was in disrepair.
“There were many broken or knocked over headstones, trash all over the place, grass growing over headstones,” Wood said. “Locals would walk by and say thank you, you guys are doing a great service. They could walk by the cemetery now, see their loved ones, and feel much better about it.
“The history of that cemetery, with gravestones from the 1800s and all the cool Native American names – it was a history lesson and honoring the deceased.”
The Jesuit contingent stayed in a double-wide trailer. Werner, a Latin teacher at Jesuit who has chaperoned this trip for six years, prepared breakfast every day. Two different students prepared dinner each night. The nearest grocery store was 45 minutes away, which made meal planning a challenge.
But it was still a stark contrast to the lives of the Lakota Sioux youth.
“It’s painfully sad to see and hear what these kids go through: alcoholism, drug abuse, etc.,” Alexander said. “Even one girl told me that her own aunt stabbed her [aunt’s] boyfriend. It’s just unreal. It’s hard to explain in words their life issues.
“The poverty is devastating. For example, we had to wash plastic spoons after every meal because they couldn’t afford metal utensils. I think about at Jesuit how kids will just constantly throw away uneaten food, while in South Dakota, the kids ate everything they were given.”
About 20,000 Lakota live on the reservation, and roughly 8,000 identify as Catholics, but church attendance is very low and the reservation is plagued by poverty.
“One girl, she didn’t have parents to wake her up; she woke herself up and walked to VBS.” Wood said. “Her mom had to take her little brother to Sioux Falls for surgery. She’s like an 8-year-old adult. She was tough. But what we wanted was to get them to act like kids.”
It took about half a day to break down the barriers. Then it was crafts, learning about bible verses, games, and lots of joy.
“I am never going to forget the amount of piggyback rides I gave and the amount of pain my neck and back were in by the end of each day,” Alexander said.
The arrival of a new camper on the second day exemplified the experience.
“Another kid came, and it was like repeating the process,” Wood said. “He just said he wanted to go home, he didn’t want to eat breakfast, stoneface, didn’t want to do anything.
“Bruce Butler took him outside and they started playing basketball, and within 10 minutes Bruce had him, he had that kid hooked. They were hitting each other with noodles.”
As is the case each year, it was sad for the week to end and to return home.
“On the last day, during a water gun and water balloon fight, I was looking around seeing all these smiling, elated faces on the kids, and I couldn’t help but return such a smile because I knew that those were genuine,” Alexander said. “That day could’ve been the first time in some of those kids lives where they experienced that type of fun.”
Wood learned through Jenny Black Bear, who serves as the local contact for coordinating the VBS, that several Jesuit students from past mission trips to South Dakota have remained in contact with youths they befriended.
“There has never been a directive to do that, it is something they have done on their own,” Wood said. “It shows you the impact this trip has made for many, many years. And we all felt it this year.”