Note: Please scroll below to read a first-person account of the 2022 South Dakota mission trip by Odin Gan '23, and to view a photo slideshow from the experience.
This past school year brought the welcome renewal of some opportunities that had been lost for a year or two to COVID-19.
Perhaps none was more welcome than the long-awaited resumption of the annual South Dakota service immersion mission trip. From June 4-11, for the first time since 2019, 10 rising seniors returned to the Rosebud Indian Reservation to make a difference in the lives of the impoverished Lakota Sioux people – specifically the children of the reservation.
The 10 members of the Class of 2023 assisted the St. Francis Mission for one week in its work in the community by operating the 'Mind, Body, and Soul" Vacation Bible School for 25 local children (which this year was at St. Bridget's Catholic Church), in addition to refurbishing local cemeteries in the evenings.
Led by chaperones Andy Wood '92, Jesuit's director of community service making his second South Dakota mission, and assistant athletic director Zach Prado '13, on his first S.D. mission, the experience made a tremendous impact on all involved.
The Jesuit seniors serving the Lakota Sioux people were Jacob DiSanto, Andrew Dolski, Odin Gan, William Hoerbelt, Andrew Koebbe, Evan Kreines, Nathan McGill, Andrew Siffert, Ronan Watson, and Vincent Wood.
They introduced the children to important biblical stories, taught basic prayers, performed arts and crafts, played games, and experienced lots of joy. 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.
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 a couple of local graveyards. Each night after preparing dinner, the Jesuit students participated in a group prayer and reflection, sharing and learning about themselves and their classmates, and developing deeper relationships.
Per tradition, dinner was a competition, with a different pair of students preparing a meal each night. When the week was over, Siffert, whose brother Alex Siffert '19 served on this mission trip in 2018, and McGill earned the Golden Spatula Award as their Beef Bolognese was voted best meal.
Among other highlights for the Jesuit students were a trip to the Mount Rushmore National Memorial, and sightseeing in the beautiful Black Hills and Badlands regions.
But it was the relationships with the children at the VBS camp, and the assistance to the community, that was at the core of the trip, as it always has been. Gan shared his thoughts about the week in the essay below. Below that is a photo slideshow from the South Dakota mission trip.
South Dakota Mission Trip by Odin Gan '23
The two weeks of Summer Break before this trip were very bland – waking up, going to the gym, eating, playing video games, going back to sleep, repeat. So when the time came to pack up and go to the airport, I was excited to break this mundane cycle. What I did not expect was how remarkable it would be. The shock, the unexpectedness, the excitement, the joy, the glory, and most importantly, the love. These are a few of many feelings I experienced.
I arrived at the airport and saw nine of my Jesuit brothers grouped together, eager to hop on the plane and head to South Dakota. These familiar faces put a big smile on my face because I knew that on this journey I would be surrounded by the people I love. We arrived in Rapid City, S.D. and drove to Mount Rushmore, and it was beautiful. My classmates and I bonded during this time and developed our brotherhood.
This vacation-like start of the trip of course was not our main reason for going; it was the Vacation Bible School for the children. But visiting Mount Rushmore and the Badlands region was invaluable because we grew together like a close-knit team, which enabled us to be at our best at VBS and make a lasting impact.
As the first day of VBS began, I turned my game face on and motivated my brothers to be at their best with the kids. We arrived at the school and kids started pouring in. But, they were extremely shy.
I initially tried talking to two girls named Malaya and Myanna, and they would not speak a single word! They would not even tell me their names. I felt discouraged, but as time passed I just continued to engage them and hoped that eventually they would open up. It took awhile, but I finally heard their voice for the first time during an activity where we talked about the story of Joseph as the Governor of Egypt. I was energized, and I could sense that both girls were slowly coming around.
They finally told me their names, and then we talked about their lives. It was clear how grateful they were for the lives that God gave them, even though they live in poverty and the things they have are very limited. As the week progressed, not only were Malaya and Myanna opening up, but all the other kids were as well. The outside play time was the best. By Thursday, all the kids were running towards me and my brothers in pure excitement. They seemed like they were ready to climb Mount Everest or swim across the Nile River. They were ready to do the impossible. I loved their energy, and my brothers and I were determined to match that energy and make it a great time for all. The activities with the kids were amazing, and we chased each other around with pool noodles. Hearing tons of laughter was heartwarming.
After each day of VBS, we worked in local cemeteries to help clean up trash, do some landscaping, and repair knocked down headstones. We met the people who work there, and it brought joy to my heart to help these workers in their valiant effort to maintain each cemetery. From the looks on their faces, I could tell how grateful they were for our help and our commitment to restoring the cemetery to a more honorable and presentable place. Tyler, one of the workers at the cemetery, drove to our house on our last day of the trip to thank us. He did not have to go out of his way to express his gratitude, but he did so anyway. This showed me how meaningful my brothers and I had been to him, and that any help we provided had brought joy to his heart.
Unfortunately, of course, the time came for us to leave and say goodbye. It was one of the hardest things I have ever done in my life. Knowing I would never see these kids again struck me hard in the heart, and I actually ended up in tears. When their parents arrived that last day, I gave Malaya and Myanna piggyback rides to their car and they both hugged me hard. I could feel the love that we shared at that moment. I know that the impact and memories of our experience together during this incredible week will last forever.
I learned a lot in South Dakota. I gained an appreciation for the things I have, and I am grateful for the life I have been given. The trip was a very humbling experience, and I can speak for the nine of my Jesuit brothers who were with me in saying that the trip changed our lives. It changed our relationship with God and made us better people in general. I will never forget South Dakota. I wish I could do it all over again.