Lakota Volunteers Erica and Carol!

Lakota Volunteers
Bette Tani By Bette Tani

Grandma Carol Farley and her granddaughter Erica DeBlois are quite the team. The duo has devoted the past several years trying to improve the lives of the Native Americans on the Cheyenne River Reservation in South Dakota, alongside a local non-profit, hawkwing.

As with most reservations, poverty is rampant at Cheyenne River. Jobs are scarce, education is minimal, health care is poor and housing is below standard. Alcoholism and suicide are high, as is the unemployment rate. As a result, residents of the Cheyenne Reservation struggle daily to make ends meet. Two-thirds of the population survives on less than one-third of the American average income according to published reports.

Erica and her 78-year-old grandmother, Carol, make the trip from Portland to the Cheyenne River Reservation, in South Dakota as often as they can.

Erica is a 20 year old student at CCSU and works for a naturopath. Naturopathic medicine, sometimes called naturopathy is a system of health care that emphasizes prevention and the self-healing process through natural therapies. Naturopathic doctors (NDs) blend centuries-old knowledge and a philosophy that nature is the most effective healer with current research on health and human systems.

Her association with naturopath, Dr. Kathleen Riley, has given Erica the opportunity to network and help coordinate volunteer medical teams that provide nutritional supplements, educational materials, vitamins, etc. to people who would otherwise go without.

“We also bring food, books, clothing, donated furniture, bottled water, underwear, toiletries, toys, gently used coats, and anything else we can to help improve their lives,” Erica said.

The pair try to devote a week, two if feasible, to travel to the reservation. They accompany volunteer medical personnel, construction workers, electricians, and other tradesmen. The medical team, in addition to the supplements, brings educational material focusing on nutrition, healthy eating habits, addiction issues (a huge problem on the reservation) and suicide prevention. Construction teams focus on making necessary repairs, building shelters, addressing plumbing and irrigation issues, wiring, and whatever else is needed at the time.

Carol and her granddaughter first learned about the Lakota after a visit to their church by Rochelle Ripley.

Rochelle, a Glastonbury resident, is the founder of hawkwing, a 501c-3 organization dedicated to improving the lives of the Cheyenne River Reservation residents. Rochelle, of Lakota descent, learned from summer visits with her Lakota Grandmother about life on the Reservation. As a young child, her grandmother asked Rochelle to promise to go home and help The People. It is a promise Rochelle has kept, and one that recently earned her the CNN Hero Award.

“After listening to her talk we, (the church) decided to get involved and see how we could help,” Carol said.

“The first year I went was 2008. Basically we went to find out what they needed and what we could do to help. We had collected books so we brought them with us, and handed them out to anybody who wanted one. I’ve never seen people so thankful to get books,” she said.

Carol went on to tell what a rare commodity books are on the reservation, and of how teachers were “mimeographing” pages from just a few text books in order to supply students with materials. But, she added, their next visit solved that problem, in part.

“The second year we (members from her church and a few surrounding churches) were able to send a full “semi-truck” load of materials including text books.”

“The books were donated by a Connecticut school who had just purchased new ones. They donated all the old ones to the reservation,” she said.

Erica, who made her first trip in 2013, described the reservation as “about the same size of Connecticut.” She became involved with hawkwing while in middle school and Girls Scouts, where she earned the Silver and Gold Awards for her work with Rochelle.

“My first summer we put together a camp for the kids. We weren’t sure how many would come. We had maybe 10 the first day. But by the end of the week we had forty. Each day the group got bigger,” she said.

“We played games with them, read books, things like that, and provided one meal each day. Most of these kids get meals in school, but when they’re not in school, they often get nothing to eat, especially on weekends and during school vacations,” she added.

Carol and Erica have turned this into a family affair, enticing both Carol’s sister and Erica’s parents and siblings to make the trip with them. While they both said they wish they could make the trip more often, doing so is costly.

Volunteers pay their own airfare as well as food and lodging expenses. Lodging according to Erica, is relatively reasonable, as is food, but not airfare. To make it easier for volunteers, they are considering holding a fundraiser this year to help to defray travel costs.

Anyone interested in making a monetary donation or volunteering can do so by visiting hawkwing.org.