Everyone except the most die-hard introvert or hermit among us feels a desire for some sort of community.
Among the Oglala Lakota, traditional culture has always placed paramount value on wacantognaka (generosity), which means sharing and giving freely among one's people (oyate). In other words, building community by caring for one another is an important value for the Lakota.
Helping the Oglala Lakota achieve better lives, whether through our food programs, athletic programs, and cultural development that respects and build pride among the people: all of these have been guideposts for how One Spirit tries to help the oyate help themselves. When we first realized that community facilities providing a place to foster good health, education, activities, and cultural involvement were needed---especially for the youth---we decided to begin our efforts to meet this need in the town of Allen, with the One Spirit Allen Youth Center.
Allen: Community in the Face of Poverty
Allen, South Dakota, has the dubious distinction of being, according to census figures, the poorest community in the United States. In 2016, approximately 93.5% of the population there lived below the federal poverty line, with about half below 50% of that line. The population, listed in the 2010 census as 420, (with about 600 people total in the nearby area), endures roughly 85% unemployment. The grinding poverty (per capita income is less than $4000 annually) contributes to poor health, alcoholism, early death (men, about 48 years and women, about 52 years), elevated rates of suicide (among youth, about twenty times higher than national averages), a school dropout rate around 70%, and infant mortality at five times the national average. (Note: these statistics are from U.S. census figures and Native News Online).
Despite the grim scenario described above, the people of Allen have shown a heartfelt desire to continue a community effort to improve their lives and more fully embrace their unique Lakota culture. Thus, since the need was so great in Allen, One Spirit made the decision to create our first youth center here, with more planned in other communities on the Pine Ridge Reservation as funds permit.
The Youth Center is Created
With the invaluable assistance of John DuBray, who lobbied strongly for the creation of the Youth Center and continues serving his community on the One Spirit Board of Directors, we were able to raise enough funds to open the Center in early 2015. Other current Board members, including John Bad Wound, Terry Livermont, Gus Yellow Hair, and Art Zimiga, as well as Director Travis Thunder Bull, have worked unceasingly to keep the Center open and operating as effectively as possible, even with increasing demand.
But there is always more need than means to meet that need.
With shrinking federal support, some of the key programs of the Allen Youth Center are reaching a critical point.
The greatest need is increased support for the food programs run by the Center. Sometimes the single wholesome meal the youth of Allen get daily is supplied by the school, but for one month in summer, meals will not be provided. Working with volunteers at the Youth Center, One Spirit is asking for additional donations (this writer just made one) to give the young people a wholesome meal at least once a day all summer long, and in future months to come.
Since illness related to unhealthy diets, such as diabetes, is a serious issue on the Pine Ridge Reservation, one can only imagine what these risks are like in the poorest community in the nation.
In addition to the youth food needs, the Center also holds a wildly popular Friday evening "Indian Taco Night" for the whole town. One Spirit has been supplying funds to underwrite this community-building social event, but funds are again short considering the costs of our regular monthly food box distribution.
Add to this that there will be music and art programs for the kids during the summer which will bring more youth to the center to participate, there will be additional food needs to make these programs successful, healthy events. In June, or as you read this, Randy Blaze will be offering art classes five hours a day for an entire month.
Besides urgently needed donations for healthy food to cover all of these events, we need to obtain adequate seating for the youthful participants that can be easily maintained for this summer and into the future as the Allen Youth Center continues to grow and diversify.
Last, since transportation to Allen, as well as to other locations on the Reservation for such things as lacrosse practice, running programs, and cultural events is often difficult or impossible for people who cannot afford cars or enough gas, One Spirit has just purchased a used school bus. The bus will be painted and become a Lakota Youth Bus to help make it more possible for the young people to participate and grow.
Please Help the Dreams of the Allen Lakota Come True
From the foregoing, it is obvious that we of One Spirit are doing our best to increase the help we can provide to the Oglala Lakota, in this case the Allen Youth Center and its programs in particular. While we greatly appreciate our regular monthly donors and their generosity, we would be grateful if our readership could find it in their hearts to send a special donation for Allen---no matter how small---to help us facilitate the success of the Youth Center and its growing contribution to the sense of community.
Allen may be the poorest town in America, but the pride and sense of community is still strong and to be admired, especially under such difficult circumstances. That strength deserves support helping more Lakota young people, as well as families, to enjoy at least some of the comforts and opportunities most of us take for granted.
Wopila tanka (great thanks) for any help you are able to offer. It will be used wisely and to the greatest extent possible to achieve the goals of One Spirit and the Lakota oyate.
"The best way to find yourself, is to lose yourself in the service of others.”
Some impressions of the art workshop at the Allen Youth Center: