La Crosse to Pine Ridge: Building Connections Part 1

As a new school year gets underway, a group of area students is reflecting on an impactful experience over the summer.

19 high school students spent a week on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.

The students were from the Health Science Academy, a program that includes 8 area school districts.

This wasn’t a mission trip, instead an opportunity for these students to strengthen relationships that were established almost a decade ago between La Crosse and people of the Oglala Lakota tribe.

For as far as the eye can see on the reservation, there are landscapes that will take your breath away.

It is sacred ground and a place where tradition runs deep.

A slice of the southwestern part of South Dakota is home to the Pine Ridge Reservation and the people of the Oglala Lakota Tribe.

“It’s absolutely beautiful, it’s a sight just to die for. It’s gorgeous,” said one native.

Bordering the Badlands National Park where the buffalo still roam free, the reservation covers about 2.1 million acres, 1.7 million of that held in a trust by the United States government. Roughly 20,000 people call the reservation their home.

But behind all of the natural beauty on the reservation is a story of hardship for the Lakota people. This is the poorest county in all of the United States.

“It’s so overwhelming the problems. Whatever problems you think they face on the outside, in mainstream society, just think 5, 10 times more we face the same problems with alcoholism are at such high rates, unemployment is at such high rates, teen pregnancy, abuse, homelessness, multiple families living in a home,” said Steve Hernandez, leader of the non-profit, One Spirit.

The statistics, which tend to vary widely, also paint a picture of a tough life here. According to a study out of UW-Eau Claire, at one time 97% of people on the reservation lived below the federal poverty line, the high school drop out rate is upwards of 70%, the teen suicide rate is 150% higher than the national average, and the average life expectancy for women is 52 years, for men it’s just 47.

“Even though all these struggles that we face, that we’re still proud of who we are and where we came from and who our people are,” said Hernandez.

9 years ago, Hernandez was introduced to La Crosse Logan High School Teacher Tom Kammer and Health Science Academy Coordinator Annette O’hern. They met to brainstorm ideas on how to steer youth on the reservation down a path of success instead of one where they were destined to become another statistic. The Health Science Academy seemed like a natural partnership and so was born a youth leadership camp.

Hernandez said, “We want to give our kids hope and we thought about what better way than to be able to give them the skills to be able to look for ways and solutions for themselves.”

“Even though, I think, we’re 10 hours apart and maybe world’s away, we all have the same dreams for our youth to take pride and be involved citizens and good workers, good family members,” said O’hern.

Usually 3 times a year for the past 8, students with the Health Science Academy have been traveling to the Pine Ridge Reservation.

O’hern said, “Every single year the youth leadership camp is different, new experiences, new youth, both on the La Crosse side and the Lakota side.”

“We’ve just been really lucky to be able to have you guys come out all these years, really make an impact with our youth, really showing what the possibilities are out there,” said Hernandez.

It was important for leaders in La Crosse to do something that was sustainable.

“We are not a one and done, we’re not here for one thing, we’re not here to paint a fence or to do a thing, we are here to establish relationships with students,” said O’hern.

“We’re human just like everybody else, we have our wants and our dreams, hopes and fears and so being able to understand that at a level, we’re people and we have this connection with you guys because it’s been all these years that we’ve worked together. We’re all related,” said Hernandez.

The connection and bond has become so strong over the years between La Crosse and the Lakota people, the circle of trust is something special and rare.

O’hern said, “It’s the relationship that we have developed with our friends here that they say, we trust you, we love you. We know that you will take the goodness of what’s going to happen back to our students and you will teach our students to understand and appreciate our culture as well.”

And while they may be part of different cultures, and they may be separated by long distance, this leadership camp is bringing our youth together and building connections that will last a lifetime.

“Just think about all the kids who’ve come through this program over the years, how many times we’ve done different activities that kids have gotten something out of and so I’m just so glad and so proud that we’re still able to do this and continue on and looking at ways to expand even more,” said Hernandez.

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