Written by Connie Larkman
A cross-cultural immersion experience more than two years in the making will bring 10 young people, ages 10 to 15, from the Pine Ridge Reservation in southwest South Dakota to Medford, Mass., in late July. The Lakota YouthStay program, a mission and ministry of Sanctuary United Church of Christ, is guided by a quote by Sitting Bull, Chief of the Hunkpapas in the 1800's and a highly respected Native Leader: "Let us put our minds together and see what life we can make for our children."
"Putting our minds together is the key for making this world a better place, isn't it?" said Joy Harris, program director of Lakota YouthStay and a member of Sanctuary UCC. "We all need opportunities to meet people from different parts of the world and get to know them — learn about their history, culture, language, worldview, values and family life."
Harris has been living into that idea since 2012, when she and husband Bruce Roberts began building relationships with the people of the Oglala Lakota (Sioux) tribe, organizing volunteers for annual mission trips, working on home improvement projects through Re-Member, a nonprofit organization located on the reservation.
"Sanctuary [formerly The Congregational Church of West Medford, UCC] has been engaged, with Re-Member volunteer opportunities and other connections that Joy and Bruce developed and sustained, with folk on the Pine Ridge Reservation since summer 2012 — this summer marks the sixth year and seventh trip to the reservation (July 8-14)," said Rev. Wendy Miller Olapade, Sanctuary's lead pastor. "It is a great example of empowering members to develop ministries for which they have passion and heart guided by the vision and mission of the ministry model."
In 2015, the couple decided they needed to do more than an annual mission trip. They started talking to the Lakota people about an immersion experience for the children, about sponsoring a youth homestay program in the Greater Boston area. The feedback was overwhelmingly positive from both the tribe elders and young people. So with the reservation buy-in, they took the idea to their church.
"In January 2016, the proposal for Lakota YouthStay was unanimously approved at Sanctuary UCC annual meeting," said Harris. "We've been laying the foundation since then. It's on a solid foundation. We have a number of Lakota advisors volunteering their time and talents to get this going."
The advisors helped the Sanctuary UCC team introduce the program in the communities on the reservation last summer. The Medford congregation, supporting the program financially and with time and energy, recruited the host families last fall.
Susan Fairchild and Jeff Buxaum, who volunteered on Pine Ridge last summer and are going again next month, are looking forward to being YouthStay host parents. They'll be gathering for orientation with other host families on June 3 and heading to the reservation in South Dakota July 8-14 as part of the Re-Member mission trip.
"Jeff and I are very excited by the program that Joy and Bruce have developed," Fairchild said. She and BuxBaum are the parents of three grown children, two who live in the Boston area. "We hope to get to meet our guest while we are in South Dakota. We are very interested for our guest to teach us more about the Lakota culture; hopefully we will have fun exchanging cultural similarities and finding some of the differences. Giving them an opportunity to process what they see, feel, and experience through their cultural lens will hopefully strengthen their identity and allow for understanding of other identities."
The Schwab-Manheim family, mom Ose Jr., dad Marcel, grandmother Ose Sr. and 15-year old Liam, are participating as a host family. "We want to invite possibility into the life of a young person — and in so doing, invite new friendship, new learning, and growth into our own life. We also very much want to be part of the story going forward of the indigenous peoples of the United States," Ose Jr. said. "There is so much to learn, to heal from, and to understand so we can build a culture in North America that honors all people/nations as vital parts of a community while acknowledging truths of history, needs of the present, and possibilities of the future."
Harris and the program's Native American advisors are making sure both the host families and the children are prepared for all possibilities.
Christy Webber, one of the advisors, lives in Pine Ridge and has been assisting Harris on-site. A member of the Sioux Tribe, Webber works in child care and development. She helped review the applications and was involved in the selection process. She's organizing get-togethers on the reservation for the children and their families, "anything we can possibly do to make the youth and parents more comfortable with the thought of their babies going across the country without them," and traveling to Massachusetts this week for Saturday's host family orientation for the participants in Medford.
Valentina Makes Him First, mother of Bryan Smith, a 12-year old YouthStay participant, has been corresponding with her son's host family via email, and both she and Bryan are excited about the trip. "Bryan has been to camp before, but this will be his first trip by plane, taking him so far away from home, away from me," she said.
She and her son got to meet and mingle with the rest of his fellow travelers, five alternates, and their families at the first YouthStay get-to-know-you event on Pine Ridge on Friday, May 19.
"The first Youth Stay experience was initially filled with nervousness," said Webber. "Once we prayed, ate, and I let them know my heartfelt understanding of the scariness of their children taking part in this program and reassured them of how thoroughly we are planning everything out, I feel that they were able to relax and be more trusting. I knew a few of the parents, and the fact that I am from Pine Ridge eased their nervousness."
"The kids got to play basketball, share pizza," said Harris. "There are three or four more get-togethers before the trip in late July so they all feel safe and connected. Group cohesion is important, since the Rez is almost the size of Connecticut; they don't all know each other."
During their eight days in the Boston area, from July 25 to August 2, the Native youth will have a digital camera to document their stay. There is a photography workshop, visits to the aquarium and the Museum of Fine Arts, a tour of Fenway Park and Sports Museum, a gathering on Cape Cod with Wampanoag and Mohegan tribe youth groups and a visit and tour with Native American students at Harvard University. The kids will also get a chance to whale watch, hike in the woods, learn to make ice cream and sample all the flavors. Along with group dinner with host families, the youth will visit a photo exhibit at Sanctuary UCC Art Gallery, "We Are All Related: Photographic Essay by Lakota Youth" on August 1.
"I hope that the youths' eyes will be opened more and they will be excited and hungry to find other opportunities to expand their horizon," said Webber. "I believe those who do not wish to leave the reservation will be motivated to improve our home-reservation life in any way that they can."
"Meeting new people puts everything in perspective and we realize that we have much more in common with others than we realize," said Harris. "The more just the world is where everyone has an equal chance to be happy, healthy and pursue the life that they want to have, the better and more peaceful the world will be. This can happen by bringing it down to a person-to-person connection."
"I hope the young people will be able to say that they have seen more of the world, and that the experiences give them a broader view of life," said Fairchild. "They will hopefully have increased their network of friends on whom they can count in the future."
"This program will bring together two groups of people — native youth and non-natives — that may not have many opportunities to meet or interact," Harris said. "We hope this will grow into continuing friendships that last beyond the YouthStay week. May it light a spark of hope in the Lakota Youth for a bright and beautiful future and bring new knowledge and understanding to the greater Medford community.
"We hope to double the number of kids next summer to 20," said Olapade, "and then once we have proven and tested the model — maybe take it on the road and teach other congregations to do it where they are, and/or with other reservations in the U.S."
"The youth are a living message that we send into the future that we may not ever see," said Webber. "Our investment, in whatever way we choose, whether time, support, love, etc. helps so much. The youth are sacred beings, gifts, and I thank you so much for your loving actions, your care, your hope for them. They also teach us in return, I know this will be a loving and rewarding experience for us all. Pilamiye (Thank you!)"