By: Brendan Capuano
Asst. News Editor
It was windy, it was loud, and I slept for what felt like ten minutes. I remember being huddled in my sleeping bag on the camping cot. I had two sweatshirts on and was curled in a ball trying to stay warm. It was the worst wink of sleep of my life and it was the start of the greatest five weeks that I have ever experienced.
At the end of my freshman year, I became involved with a non-profit organization called Simply Smiles, which works in Oaxaca, Mexico and in South Dakota. Their mission is to “provide bright futures for impoverished children, their families, and their communities.” With a holistic approach, they assess the needs of the community, building houses, organizing community meals, and running programs and summer camps for teens to learn about colleges.
After two flights and a five-hour bus ride on May 13, 2017, I was no longer a volunteer or an office intern, but I started my first day of real work on the reservation.
I spent my first night on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in the small town of La Plant, South Dakota. For the next five weeks, I worked as the media intern for Simply Smiles, producing videos and taking pictures. I lived in a staff bunk house behind the Sam D. Horse Community Center, in close quarters with about a dozen other interns and staff members.
For the next five weeks, I was no longer in the America I knew, but rather in what seemed to be another nation entirely. I was exposed to a new culture, with its own unique traditions, and a land with its own unique set of problems.
Reservations in America are often over-looked and neglected. The Cheyenne River Sioux tribe, home to the Lakota, is located just south of the Standing Rock reservation, which was in the news last year. Some of the major problems on reservations include mass unemployment, alcoholism and drug abuse.
Simply Smiles works heavily with the kids of the reservation and, through summer camps, provides them with experience in leadership roles. They empower the youths of La Plant and show them, in a town where unemployment is at nearly 90%, that they can get a job and make a good living for themselves.
I worked to create media for them, but as a Simply Smiles intern, you really do it all. The unofficial intern motto is “flexibility is fun” because you never know what you are going to have to do on any given day. I did everything from crawling in an attic and installing insulation to cooking enough sloppy joes for 300 people.
What I enjoyed most on the reservation was talking with the elders. Their stories about Lakota traditions and spirituality are incredibly poetic and are rooted in a respect for life. I heard stories about people from La Plant and their time at the Standing Rock camp. I heard first-hand how the protests were peaceful and how one day they turned violent, then how one of the kids I worked with was thrown into prison when it happened. I heard stories about generations of oppression and the struggles of a nation of people forgotten by just about everyone . . . but not Simply Smiles. I witnessed a community come together to lift it’s children up and show them that they are the future, and that they can create positive change in the world.
Just about every night for five weeks I would fall asleep exhausted to the sound of rain on a tin roof and crickets chirping. That first night was brutal, but every night after that was incredible.