Helping to Save the World: Choosing a Service Project

Choosing a Service Project

I think I came out of the womb as a save the world type. I was known early on as the family idealist. My mother would tell the story of me at 2 years of age out in the driveway on a rainy day picking worms off the pavement to put back in the grass, something I still do today. At the age of 11, I volunteered for the first time, canvassing door to door for George McGovern’s presidential campaign. I have volunteered for most of my 44 years since then, working on service projects ranging from those focused on helping people, political issues and candidates, education, and helping animals and the environment. Based on my passion for volunteering, it was a given that service projects were going to be a part of our homeschool journey.

You don’t have to have been volunteering as long as I have to make service projects a part of homeschooling at your house. All you need is a desire to make a difference, a willingness to help out through volunteering, and time. Based on my experiences, I wrote a set of guidelines to help you get started incorporating service projects in your child’s eclectic, academic education.

Blair’s Tips for Choosing a Service Project

1. Choose a Service Project That is a Good Fit for Your Family

Be true to your family, your child, and you!

Sean is talking to one of the guest speakers at Re-member.
Sean is talking to one of the guest speakers at Re-member.

• If you do not want to volunteer on a project under certain situations be clear about it before committing. We are secular, academic homeschoolers, and we consider the service projects to be part of our homeschool. Before we volunteer, I contact the organization and ask if they allow proselytizing. We only participate in those that do not. This is not to say that prayer does not take place at some. There will be other volunteers and group leaders who regularly pray. My husband has volunteered for Habitat for Humanity on a project near Pueblo, Mexico. The group leader on the project was a pastor and prayed with the group daily.

Dietary restrictions or health issues: Do any of you have nut allergies or gluten intolerance? Are you vegetarian or vegan? Does someone in your family have asthma? All of these should be addressed early. Sometimes it is not convenient for you to bring your own food or to get any when there. I am vegan, but will eat vegetarian when on a project. If the organization is responsible for our meals, and they cannot accommodate a vegetarian eater I will not participate in that project.

• How much of the money donated goes to the actual service? This is something we address before deciding on a project. The answer doesn’t directly affect what you are doing, but it does tell you something about the dedication of the organization to service. Because we only volunteer for groups who give most of their profits to their cause, when housing and meals are included, they are not deluxe. This is important to us. For example, with the extreme poverty we observed on the Pine Ridge Reservation, I would have been offended if when I volunteered for Re-member the accommodations showed much money spent on the volunteers’ food and lodging. What they provided was healthy, basic, and exactly right.

• There is no right or wrong cause as long as you and your family find meaning from it. Our volunteering with Sean has focused on people, politics, and animal rescue. These are not the only causes we are each passionate about, but they are the primary spheres where our family passions about saving the world intersect. Just make sure it is a cause all participating family members think is worthy, so that all participate at a high level.

2. Choose a Service Project Where You Participate with Your Children.

Your volunteering might even start with your children helping you. If this is the case, you will want to choose a service projects where they can help.

Blair helps to build skirting for a trailer at Re-member.
Blair helps to build skirting for a trailer at Re-member.

• My child took it for granted he would one day volunteer. Long before I had him and for the first two years after he was born, I volunteered for a San Diego based organization called Project Wildlife that rescues orphaned and injured native wildlife. I was on the opossum team and would take him with me when I rescued opossums.

• When he was three I read at the local library for their pre-school reading program. Sean helped me select books and practice reading stories using different voices.

• These days an essential criterion when choosing projects is how old volunteers can be. For example, we recently volunteered at Re-member on the Pine Ridge Reservation because they would let someone Sean’s age participate. Habitat for Humanity has an older age requirement so Sean cannot volunteer with them. Because of that, my husband volunteers for Habitat by himself.

3. Another aspect that affects the choice of service project is the reason your family is volunteering.

Sean volunteering at Re-member
Sean volunteering at Re-member

• It is common for college-bound high school students to participate in one or more service projects. For those students, a service project that ties in with their academics may make more sense. A more long-term commitment might make more sense as well. This gives the student the opportunity to shine on a long-term basis, which can result in a nice letter of recommendation to include with their transcript. For students whose reason for volunteering is to flesh out their college transcript, you will want to be strategic about your choice of project.

• Is your child a save the world type? If so, you should let your student follow their muse. Even if it is not a cause you would choose, you should still support it. Even within a close family, there will be differences in what brings meaning to each person’s life. The elements of what brings meaning will change over time too. Save the world types need support, encouragement, and validation. Even though my parents did not support the same presidential candidate as I did, they supported me supporting him. They drove me where I needed to go and listened with interest when I talked about what I had done while volunteering. They were also there for me through the disappointment of his loss.

• Is there something you want your child to learn about the world? When we volunteered with Cross Cultural Solutions in Delhi, India and Re-member at Pine Ridge, South Dakota my husband and I chose those for a purpose. We want our son to understand in a meaningful way that there is poverty in the world and that small acts of kindness matter and can help. We also want Sean to understand there are people in this world who do not have access to the same opportunities he and his peers do because of their life circumstances. We wanted him to begin, in a meaningful way, applying the adage

“Be the change you want in the world.”

4. Time and travel are two important parameters to think about before deciding on a service project.

Local service projects offer the benefit of being close to home and therefore easy to get to and schedule for. Long-term, local projects make a lot of sense if your child might use their service as a part of their transcript when they apply to college or on a job application.

Do not discount short-term service projects if the time isn’t available to do a long-term one. For example, volunteering on Thanksgiving feeding people at a homeless shelter is rewarding and meaningful. It also helps your child understand they can make a difference in their community.

Volunteering can help your child find meaning in their life
and feel connected to others and the world.

Sean volunteering in Delhi, India
Sean volunteering in Delhi, India

• Projects that are not local will usually happen for a condensed period of time. The benefit of these types of projects is that they are usually more immersive programs. The two we participated in had an educational component with guest speakers which really enhanced the experience. Some local projects have an educational component too, but it is not the same as having four or five nights in a row of guest speakers all discussing issues relevant to your volunteer work from different perspectives.

• If you are volunteering out of the country, you will need to make sure you have taken care of visa requirements if they have them. You should also contact a health provider to make sure you have all needed vaccinations.

      • In the country where you are a resident you will need to figure out your transportation for getting to the project.
      • In or out of the country make sure your tetanus vaccination is up-to-date.

5. Don’t let yourself get discouraged.

When embarking on a service project, you will be filled with the promise of it. The focus is usually on how you can and will make a difference. It feels like you are about to do something big. The reality of the situation is usually smaller, and it can feel like there is nothing you can do to make a difference. This is especially true for children who volunteer. I spent time while at Re-member discussing this with one of the adults, Geordie Campbell, who had brought a large group of teens to volunteer. I was feeling despair after realizing the huge issues and will, both societally and politically, it would take to make a large-scale difference for this community. Geordie said something that resonated with me, and helped me deal with my sadness and feelings of helplessness.

“Hope versus Despair
How to stay hopeful in the context of despair and charity must be a part of all social change.
It is important to look at charity as a type of social justice.
What you are feeling, Blair, is called compassion fatigue, and it is a common problem for volunteers.
That is because the complexity of the dysfunction leads to despair.”
~ Geordie Campbell

Don’t let despair keep you from trying to be a part of social change. We like to tell Sean to make it matter that he walked on this Earth. We try to let him define what that means for him, but if everyone who was able did something they felt would make a difference, no matter how small it seemed, it would be a very different world.

When my friend Catherine heard about our trip, she asked if her daughter Sophia, Sean's best friend, could come with us. It was our pleasure, of course. Here Sophia is helping to build a wheel chair ramp at Re-member.
When my friend Catherine heard about our trip, she asked if her daughter Sophia, Sean’s best friend, could come with us. It was our pleasure, of course. Here Sophia is helping to build a wheel chair ramp at Re-member.

• If you are going to an impoverished community prepare your children. You will have some idea what you are going into. Your children have not had the same breadth of experiences. And even with plenty of explanation before you go, compassion fatigue can be an issue you should be prepared to deal with both personally and with your children. One of the guest speakers at Re-member, Will Peters, said “Just because someone will be hungry tomorrow does not mean you shouldn’t feed them today.” Help your children understand that “feeding” someone today might seem so small you are not making a difference, but it does make a difference for the hungry person.

• Don’t make value judgments based on where you are at in your life. When you are volunteering make sure you keep your own expectations and presumptions out of the equation. If you find yourself thinking you would behave differently, or do something differently, realize that is you thinking from the perspective of where you are now. The truth is much more complicated. None of us has any idea what we would do in a situation unless we have been in it.

6. Be prepared to pay for your food, lodging, transportation, and often materials.

The three service projects that were away from home that my family has participated in all had fees we paid in order to participate. Many participants use raising the money for the project as a part of the journey.

7. Be prepared to “shovel poop”!

Poop used to “ick” me out so much, and then I volunteered for the Humane Society and Project Wildlife. I am using shoveling poop as a metaphor for doing things outside of your comfort level, whether it is ticks on dogs, spiders under houses, pooping in a hole in the ground in a space with only three walls, covering your hair, or anything else along those lines. You need to let these things go and not fixate on them. You are going to have to help your children do the same. You are there to serve. It is not about you. If your child has something they absolutely cannot deal with, spiders for example, discuss this with the organization before signing up for the project. These projects need volunteers to come and work. When you get there they do not have the time to fuss with volunteers’ idiosyncrasies and pet peeves. They are too busy coordinating the work on the project.

8. Homeschoolers have much more control over the courses and coursework used as a part of their child’s academics.

Sean volunteered on the phone banks for a candidate during the 2014 election.
Sean volunteered on the phone banks for a candidate during the 2014 election.

Homeschoolers should take advantage of this and use the service project as a part of their academics. Learning more about the project and intended benefits of it helps your child understand their service in a larger context and helps them make connections from their volunteering to the world at large. It also gives them knowledge they can use to educate others about these issues. My child has learned about Native Americans, opossums, educational issues in India, and politics. This year he will work on two service projects. Sean spent six days volunteering for Re-member, and he will spend 12-months, all of 2016 volunteering on a Presidential campaign.

• Before going take the time to learn about the project, area, and organization. Before we went to Re-member for example, my family:

      • Watched movies about the Lakota both documentaries and historical fiction
      • My husband and I read books and articles that we discussed and shared parts of with Sean.

• In preparation for volunteering on a Presidential campaign, Sean is taking two American Government courses before volunteering on a Presidential campaign. He has already been watching speeches as candidates declare that they are running. He has chosen the political issue that is the most important to him without us telling him what the issue most important to us is. After researching the issues being discussed by the candidates, he decided the most important political issue is income inequality. He is learning what each party’s platform is and where the various candidates stand on them. He reads articles about the candidates, watches the debates, listens to town hall meetings, and is in the process of choosing the candidate he wants to support. All of this is ongoing. Some of these will be completed before he starts volunteering and some will not.

• After volunteering discuss the big issues and take home messages. What you see and learn can take time to process. Continue to discuss these issues with your child and help them give voice to what they saw, did, and felt for months after the experience. This helps your child to be an advocate for change in this area.

9. Keep good records.

Adults usually volunteer without keeping records. You should keep good records for your child. They can use their service when applying for jobs and to college. You can use photos and written accounts. If you are not volunteering with your child, you should help them with record keeping. It makes sense to have kids write their own journal about their service. If you do this though, you should read over what they wrote for completeness. Make sure, if incorporating the project into a high school student’s transcript, to use key words when writing about it that tie in with other coursework. His service at the Lakota Reservation and on the Presidential Campaign will emphasize the historical context of both, since I am considering them to be a major component of 10th grade history.

The records should include

      • what was done
      • the hours spent doing it
      • name and contact information for person in charge of the project they worked on
      • information about the organization

Our children are growing up in a big complicated world. Listening to the news and online there is a lot of discussion about the problems in it, without much constructive discussion about how to solve them. Many of the kids I meet feel frustrated with these problems, and they don’t see how they can help fix them. Volunteering on service projects that are meaningful to kids does two important things; it helps the world and gives kids a positive outlet to help fix it. With hard work, thoughtful service, and small acts of kindness, we can save the world empowering our children to be good stewards of it at the same time!

1406266378Blair Lee M.S. is the the founder of Secular, Eclectic, Academic Homeschoolers. When she’s not busy doing these things, she’s busy writing or working on service projects. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Real Science Odyssey Biology 2 and Chemistry 1, She is currently working on Astronomy and Earth Science 2 for the series.

Here are links to the four service projects mentioned above:

Handcrafting High School: Year 2, Month 1: Re-member

Handcrafting High School: Year 2, Month 1: Re-member

I’m going to depart a bit and tell you about what we learned. I think it is the best way for you to get a feel for the profound benefits of exposing young people to this sort of service project where there is service directly to a community, field trips in the community, and talks from members of the community. Talks given by members of this community, while you are volunteering in it, that focus on issues the community is dealing with and has dealt with, are educational in a way no other academic situation could be. It leads to deep learning that becomes a part of what an individual understands to be true for these people, and it gives insight into how varied the world is and how opportunities in it are based on the circumstances of someone’s birth.

Before leaving we watched videos and read articles and books to learn what we could about the situation at the Reservation. We volunteered on the Reservation. After we left we discussed it and synthesized what we learned. The synthesis is important to learning. The synthesis, by the way, purposefully took place in Custer State Park, more on that at the end.

In structuring this I will tell you what we did each day. If we listened to somebody speak, I will include the notes I took from that talk. It is second nature to me to pull out a piece of paper and a pen when someone is talking. I learned a long time ago that even though I think I will remember later, I don’t. I am leaving my notes in a similar fashion to how they are written. At the end, I will share with you an essay Sean and I wrote. Much of the text in it comes from the Sean. I did prompt him occasionally. I am including this essay so that you can get a feel for how this experience profoundly moved my teen, and how I used the experience to help him think through and articulate what he experienced. I also used the experiences from this week to help him make connections to the world as a whole. I didn’t want him to think what he saw was just occurring locally on the Reservation, and I wanted him to come to an understanding of how federal, state, and local laws and policies, many of which are often voted on, can affect people now and in the future. For Sean, this was also part of his year spent focusing on politics.

Day 1 – 8/15/2015: Check in at Re-member

We woke up very early and spent most of the day driving. We passed through the states of Colorado, Wyoming, and Nebraska before taking a left and driving up into the southern end of South Dakota. The Pine Ridge Reservation is close to the border of South Dakota and Nebraska. You pass through the town of Whiteclay, Nebraska before driving into South Dakota. Whiteclay is a small, dusty town with people sitting outside of the grocery store and liquor store either drinking or passed out. Here is a link to the documentary, Battle for Whiteclay, which was made about the situation there,

Late in the afternoon, we arrived at Re-member, which is located on the Pine Ridge Reservation.


This is a view from the area where we stayed. There was a good-sized group of us staying here. I didn’t count, but I think there were 50 or 60 volunteers.

Re-memberThis is the common room. There is also a dining room and a girls’ sleeping area with bunk beds and a boys’ sleeping area. It was reasonably comfortable, and the food was pretty good. I had to go vegetarian for the week. Soon after arriving we were divided into groups of four or five. Each member of our group was separated into a different group. This was the group we would work with, including doing chores together. It is a good idea to divide family groups up. It leads to more mingling and interaction among the strangers who were volunteering together. My group was assigned kitchen duty shortly after we arrived, and it was off to the kitchen for me.


Day 2 – 8/16/2015: The Sanctuary, Wounded Knee, Red Feather, Keith Janis

The first day of our stay was spent learning some of the history, visiting the Badlands, and listening to Keith Janis speak.

Re-memberMost of our group visited the Badlands. The Badlands are an excellent example of how erosion and deposition can shape a landscape. Looking at this photo you can see the sedimentary layers in the rock.


This is a fossilized turtle shell


This area is called The Sanctuary. The entire group laid or sat down to meditate with the purpose of connecting with the land. It was a wonderful way to start. I happened to lie down next to ant hill. The ants began to crawl on but never bit me. They tickled.


This little frog hopped by.


This is where the Wounded Knee Massacre occurred.


We listen to a talk about the Wounded Knee Massacre. I am sorry to tell you I cannot find the speaker’s name anywhere in my notes. It was very different from the lesson learned in school, unless you count Sophia and Sean, who are both homeschooled. This is the first week of 10th grade for them. Here is a link I found online about the history, The massacre was thought to have occurred as a retaliation for a defeat Custer had experienced many years before. It was brutal, bloody, and senseless. If you wonder, as I think some people do, why the people living on the Reservation are still focused on these tragic incidents, then you have most likely never been to the Reservation. The treatment of Sitting Bull and his followers was indicative of things to come. It is hard to describe with only words and pictures what we saw and heard over the next few days.


Across the road from the site of the massacre is a cemetery.


The people killed in the massacre were buried in a mass burial site piled on top of each other. There have been others buried here as well, including ancestors of survivors of the massacre.


This is a list of some of the acts of genocide committed against the Native Americans.

Notes from Talk by Keith Janis: Keith was really broken up about the recent epidemics of suicides.

  • The tribes that form the great Sioux nation are the Lakota, Dakota, Nakota, and Wajajo – the great Sioux nation was made up of nomadic tribes that followed the Buffalo.
  • The Lakota’s ancestral heartland was the Black Hills. The Black Hills were taken from them, because gold was discovered there.
  • To this day, based on the Indian Termination Treaty, Native Americans are still considered prisoners of war, which make Reservations prisoner of war camps. The Reservation was a prison designed to get rid of the Indian problem. This is what led to the Battle of Little Big Horn.
  • The Sioux Nation calls their homeland Turtle Island.
  • Crazy Horse, Bigfoot, and Sitting Bull were all assassinated by the Bureau of Indian Affairs. In addition to killing these leaders, legislators at about that time instituted a policy of killing Buffalo to starve Sioux Indians. At the same time it was illegal for Native Americans to be off the Reservation. The penalty for native people who were caught off the Reservation was beheading. People could earn three dollars per Lakota who was killed. (Cormac McCarthy wrote a heart-wrenching and superior work of historical fiction called Blood Meridian focused on this issue.)
  • There were few buffalo left, and on the Reservations people were starving with only mice to eat. At this point, they started the Ghost Dance, which was a spiritual movement designed to bring back the Buffalo Nation. This was led by a person claiming to be a prophet who received some support. It was not unilateral support. As the great Sioux nation was a large group of people from many different tribal groups with many different allegiances, they did not all follow or agree on one path.
  • The annual household income today on the Reservation is $5500. There is a high rate of diabetes, a high rate of infant mortality, and a high rate of youth suicide. In fact there had been three youth suicides in the past days, with the president of the tribe calling for a state of emergency. Along with the suicides, there is an increased rate of alcoholism and an increased level of poverty, all caused by historical trauma that to this day is unacknowledged by most of the community in the United States.
  • The organization Re-member at 17 years old is the longest operating NGO on Pine Ridge.
  • Can you imagine your daughter at 18 years old committing suicide instead of going to college with her 3 best friends? Our first speaker lost his 12-year-old granddaughter to suicide. Most of the people committing suicide are little girls. Something has to be done about these little girls thinking they don’t want to live this life.
  • Historical trauma were things like forced sterilization, smallpox infected blankets, Gatling guns being used on unarmed people, children taken away to institutions where they were raped and purposefully separated from their culture. Even today the academic standards in reservation schools teach children history about the founding fathers, and the freedom and rights given to all Americans. This is untrue. Not all people experience the same rights and freedom or have the same opportunities.
  • Between 1/15 and 8/15 there were 29 suicides committed by children on Pine Ridge. It is only one reservation. Over 140 children on seven reservations committed suicide during this time, and there were another 450 children who attempted to commit suicide but were saved through immediate intervention. This is in a state with slightly more than 1 million people.
  • 28,000 children on reservations have committed suicide in 10 years. If these children were white it would be considered a national epidemic.
  • Michelle Obama tried to address the epidemic of youth suicide saying the Spirit is not broken, but not much else has happened to address the issue.
  • As you look around the Lakota Reservation you realize not much has changed. There are people without houses and no running water in trailers. It has become difficult to move off the Reservation or improve their houses even today, because banks will not give native people loans.
  • While we were there a nine-year-old committed suicide. Can you imagine a nine-year-old not wanting to live any longer? It is heart-breaking.
  • It wasn’t until 1973 that the boarding school era ended. This was the forced institutionalization of children. At the boarding schools speaking a language other than English or running away were severely punished. (There would be more on the boarding schools in a couple days. I will go into more details then.) Rape from staff members was common for both males and females. This brutal treatment led to the formation of AIM = the American Indian Movement, which started at Wounded Knee to walk on Washington.
  • The government killed 90 Native Americans, AIM members, in the early 1970s.
  • This bitterness and isolation leads to teen suicides.
  • People with European ancestors are not confined to the Reservation –> everything other Americans have is from the displacement of indigenous people –> the work available to Native Americans is shoddy. Shabby and desolate areas were chosen for reservations in locations designed to fail, while prime locations were taken from them –> this was done with malicious intent in an effort to disenfranchise and disempower people who could not fix the system.

Day 3 – 8/17/2015: Blair skirting trailers, Will Peters

Today was a work day. Re-member has several projects going at the same time. The small group I was in went to fix the skirting on a trailer. We did work with other groups sometimes.


The trailer was in bad condition. I learned these are FEMA trailers built for people in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. There is a huge difference between weather conditions in New Orleans, Louisiana and Pine Ridge, South Dakota. When I looked under the trailer there was water dripping. Most people do not have running water to their trailer. It is considered a luxury. There is a problem using plumbing designed to work in New Orleans in Pine Ridge. The plumbing isn’t design to withstand the successive freezing and warming the plumbing experiences during the winter in Pine Ridge. So the water going to the trailers leak, a lot. If you’re wondering what the people who have no running water do, the water is delivered to them. We would consider the amount of water to be a small amount, 28 gallons a week. It is supposed to be delivered regularly, but the delivery is sporadic. For those people who do have running water, that is problematic as well. The government of South Dakota allowed a uranium mine to be built at the headwaters of the river that runs through the Reservation. Uranium mining releases toxic, carcinogenic pollutants into the water. The whole situation is a mess. Can you even imagine in the year 2015 living in a structure with your family, your children, that has either no running water or water known to be toxic? You begin to get a sense for how and why this community, and especially the children in them, could feel that this country and its citizens don’t care what happens to them. (After Flint, I guess so. I wonder how many communities have similar crises.)

Notes from Talk by Will Peters: Will, a high school teacher, talked about Lakota ways. He directed most of the talk to the teens, close to half the group. They appreciated how he directly reached out to them. Will also brought along his grandson.

  • Pine Ridge is known to be the poorest community in the United States. If you wonder what community is the second poorest, don’t. Poor is poor. It doesn’t matter if you’re the first poorest, second poorest, or third poorest, who cares. For native people humor keeps them from poverty’s despair. Will said he worries about the women, the kids, the elders. People ask why these groups, and not just native people, but why poor people are not more involved in politics and ideologies. Why don’t they vote? Why don’t the poor work to change people’s ideas and their minds? Because nobody’s got time for these things. The day-to-day struggle when you don’t have enough to eat, when you can’t take care of your family, is all you have time for.
  • And for poor people and First People trust is hard, because there have been so many people, politicians, missionaries – all of these people came to the Reservation and made money and careers, and then left without fulfilling their promises. This becomes a problem for those people who show up and do want to change things and are sincere with their promises. There has been such an erosion of trust, it doesn’t feel worth it. It feels like it isn’t worth investing that trust in someone else.
  • Child suicide on the Reservation has been back to back – one was a student who was still in elementary school – then there were six more suicides soon after. Part of the problem is that we need to listen to the kids; let them tell us what happened to them. In the face of all the poverty, suicide is the new way kids are dealing with the hopelessness of their situation. The best way for suicide prevention is that we listen, show the love, and show our capacity to care.
  • Will pointed out that a teacher is nothing without students.
  • Once the entire North American continent was called Turtle Island by the Lakota’s.
  • Will discussed the Keystone XL pipeline. This came up several times while we were on the Reservation, with many native people saying they were willing to stand up and protest it being brought over/through native lands, and they were willing to die to stop it if need be. The Lakota we heard from felt that the Keystone XL pipeline being built across the Reservation would have been akin to more taking of their land by the government for corporate interests who care only about money and not about the people. One of the things we learned about the Keystone pipeline is that everything needed for it had already been built. The holdup for the Keystone pipeline being completed and operational is the 300 miles the pipeline needs to run through tribal lands. The United States government cannot just build a pipeline across native lands, although at that time it looked like they might. It is possible the fight is what kept it from being completed. The Keystone XL pipeline is another example, along with guns, the liquor industry, and energy drinks with alcohol in them, all of this is about the money. It has nothing to do with caring about the people. It isn’t just an indication the federal, state, and local governments and businesses don’t care about native people. It is an indication they don’t care about any people.
  • We need to be honest with our kids and stop the racism, classism, sexism, and bullying. This is important for all young people, not just those who are poor. It is time for a war on poverty, illiteracy, and -isms. We need to eliminate sexism. Forget burning bras we should be burning men’s underwear, and let them see what it’s like to go without support. We need to teach young people to dream without fear. To teach them they can believe in their dreams and walk inside their dreams, that their dreams can honestly come true for them. Adults should view young people as sacred beings. The human race needs to stop destroying itself and this planet. We need the sacred beings to save it. Poverty causes people to tear each other down instead of supporting each other. The young people, the sacred beings, need to come together and support each other. There needs to be a change in the dialogue from suicide to talking about a reason to live. Adults need to advocate for these sacred beings with the purpose of supporting them and their dreams. We need to focus on giving them a reason to live. One of the biggest problems when we do not raise our children to believe in dreams and to fight for what is right and against injustice is that these young people become old people without having any concept about the quality of their life. They spent their entire life just thinking about surviving. This is called historical trauma.
  • When Will introduced his wife he said something I love. He called his wife, “the other side of me,” and said he thinks of her like that because the two of them have been walking side-by-side together for many years.

Here is a short documentary Will is featured in, Dream without Fear,

Here are some songs of his,

Here is an article about the Nammy award he won,

Day 4 – 8/18/2015: Blair building outhouses and bunk beds, Larry Powers

Our tools

On the property with our dorm there were several shops. On this day I had the pleasure of working with Jerry. At each project there are one or more employees who are in charge. Jerry is in charge of the shop. We spent the day building bunk beds and the frames for outhouses. These are in high demand. You might wonder why. I did, so I peppered Jerry with questions about the project. The list below is what I learned.

Our tools
  • Bunk beds: People sleeping in bath tubs. 8 year old children who have never had a bed to sleep in. Paralyzed woman sleeping on the floor with teens as the only people to help her. Jerry met a woman who had lived in a house for 40 years, living on 300$ a month to pay for rent and heat, one of these bunk beds was the first bed she had slept on in her life.
Sanding the posts used for the bunk beds. Jerry is adamant, the woods pieces used for the bunk beds are smooth, so there are no splinters for the people using them.
  • Outhouses: There are water table issues, and problems with the plumbing at trailers. Most trailers are not insulated. Something I observed when I worked on skirting the trailer. Trailers built by FEMA for Katrina then sent to this extreme environment – electric not gas. What if you can’t pay your electrical bill? They turn the electric off, even in sub-zero temperatures, and pipes burst inside the house/trailer. Donated trailers in substandard conditions.


  • Uranium mine at the headwaters above the Reservation – arsenic -radon. This is the tribe’s water source. Those communities that do have water, have  high rates of cancers associated with radiation poisoning.


There is a documentary about this, and an article

  • Ranches and towns outside of the Reservation have non-toxic water available to them. Why? Voting and dollars in these predominantly, white communities.
  • Black mold in basements of houses with people sleeping in them – for a veteran and her children. She came home from Iraq after spending 4 years in the military. She now lives with her children, sleeping on the floor in her mother’s basement.
  • For those with no running water: 28 gallons a week is delivered, but sometimes the delivery is not made, and it is 2 or 3 weeks. Think about how much water you use in a week.
  •  Superfund site on tribal lands? Homeless?
  • Indian Giver means you give something back not take something without sharing.
  • You see trash in piles around the community. It is because there is no trash service and the cost of gas to get to the dump and the fees at the dump are prohibitive for most people.

Notes from Talk by Larry Powers: Larry is a spiritual leader. The bulk of his discussion was about issues related to that. I am sorry I did not take extensive notes on this day. I was feeling rather hopeless on this day. I felt like as much as I care, I could not make a difference, that the problem is too big. After Larry’s talk I sat in the dining room and talked to Jerry. He helped me to process it all, even though much of what he told me was distressing.  It helped to talk about what I was seeing. If you don’t know it, and most don’t, there is another America in the midst of the one many of us live in.


  • Mohammed, Buddha, Jesus, and White Buffalo Calf Woman were all important prophets, Both Larry and Carol who spoke to us the next day made a point of telling us that unlike settlers to America, First Peoples had a female prophet. Both also told us sexism was uncommon among Native Americans before the European settlers came. Many tribes, like the Lakota, had female leaders. The European settlers were not used to dealing with female leaders. Often this led to tribes having a male member of the tribe represent them. These were not experienced leader, and the tribe would not necessarily follow these men. Over the years, however, this did lead to some of the sexist behavior within the tribe today.
  • One of the most damaging policies from European settlers was Manifest Destiny.
  • Larry went into what happened to the AIM movement. If you are interested in this I recommend the documentary Robert Redford made about Leonard Peltier,
  • Racism as a synonym for ignorance
  • Who taught you language? Are you fluent? Is there a movement in your community to teach traditions to the young, and if so how effective is it?
  • When you look at First Peoples (and enslaved people) you need to realize there has been a previous condition of servitude. This affects many of the attitudes and actions they take today.

Jerry is also a poet. This is a poem he wrote. a poem of Jerry's

Day 5 – 8/19/2015: Blair and Sophia building a wheelchair ramp, handcrafted goods, Carol Iron Rope Herrera

Some days we worked with only our group, and some days we worked with multiple groups. Loading the trailers on the last work day was the closest my group would come to working with Sean and Michelle.

I never worked with Jim. Today I was assigned to build wheelchair ramps with Sophia.


We got back to the dorms, cleaned up, and then got to work on a meal for people in the community. This was a meal the people in the community are invited to, and the volunteers at Re-member feed to the people who attend. I have no photos of this, because I was tired and busy. I managed to get my energy back in time to spend some money on the handcrafts displayed on the tables.

Here are two of the artisans who made jewelry we bought.

Notes from Talk by Carol Iron Rope Herrera

Our tools

Carol has spent much of her life working to help children and their families. She is an educator and an administrator, and at one time was the coordinator of the Healthy Start program on Pine Ridge. These days she works for the organization she created called the Stoneboy Women’s Society, The society teaches traditional Lakota birthing ceremonies to Lakota women. She told us she was working on her Master’s degree. Carol talked to us about the boarding school experience.

  • In native culture when a person’s hair was cut it meant someone died. The first thing that happened when the kids were taken away from their family to the boarding school was that their hair was cut. There was no explanation or attempt to help the children understand this was not because someone close to them had died. Many of these kids did not understand English so they couldn’t understand this was a cultural thing.
  • At the boarding school it was forbidden to cry or speak in the native language.
  • Carol Iron Rope Herrera told the story of an acquaintance or relative, I didn’t write which, who had been taken to the boarding school when she was five years old. The little girl would not stop crying. She was told repeatedly in English to stop crying or she would be punished, but she did not understand English. It was not until sometime later she was told what the intake people had been saying to her. Finally the intake person became so upset with her, the woman cut the tip of her finger off. When this made her cry even more the woman cut another tip of her finger off. Many times we were reminded of the historical trauma.
  • One of the most disturbing things we learned was that even today kids on reservations are forced to learn history that glorifies the Christian faith. The people running these boarding schools were part of the Christian faith and the Europeans who came to the New World and set up a government that would do these sorts of things. If this sounds like these things were happening a long time ago, remember it wasn’t until the mid-70s the boarding school era ended. That’s not 1870 that is 1970s. The boarding schools destroyed the human knowledge and the methodology of how to raise a family. 25% of all people committed suicide while they were inside the boarding school; another 25% committed suicide once they were out; 60% of all people in the boarding school were raped. We heard a lot about the girls and females being raped, and I specifically asked about boys being raped. You hear less about it because of increased feelings of shame, but if 60% of all people in the boarding school were raped, it seems rape must have been common for boys taken to the boarding school. My guess is 60% is a low number since the rape of boys tends to go under-reported. At the age of 18, people were let out of the boarding school and expected to raise kids and live in a happy, well-adjusted family. They didn’t grow up in a family. They didn’t grow up watching parents do a good job taking care of their children. They didn’t learn these types of skills. It is unfair to expect a population of people forced into this situation to, as an entire group, have the skills needed to raise their children. They do not have the cultural competence needed.
  • One of the things that happened in the boarding school was that name changes were forced on Native Americans. These name changes have done native culture, history, and people a great disservice.
  • Things have improved but they have so far to go it can be hard to see. Especially if you’re only at the Reservation for a week as we were.
  • A movie depicting what was done to Native Americans, that Carol thinks does a good job of it, is Soldier Blue. I remembered seeing it when I was about Sean’s age with my mother.
  • Time and life are not linear; the past, present, and future is circular. Is important to understand equality is also circular.

8/20/2015 Day 6: Field Trip, Black Elk’s Cabin

On the last day we went on another field trip. We started by with a tour of the Reservation. These are the notes from the guided tour. We had lunch at a lunch spot run by an ancestor of Black Elk, called Betty’s Kitchen. Several of us then hiked down to Black Elk’s Cabin. After we packed and got ready to leave in the morning for the rest of our journey.

the landscape.jpg

  • Red wheat, sunflower, safflower are the 3 main crops on the Reservation. Who benefits from this? Not the people on the Reservation.
  • Two years ago they finally lit path to boys and girls club. Thirty years ago they lit the road to Whiteclay where alcohol is sold.
  • The hospital was built, but without a call system and telephones.
  • Invasive mold: There were 800 documented cases before HUD told them to quit counting, or HUD would quit giving funding.
  • Only 1 supermarket on the Reservation for 90 miles. The tribe owns the land the grocery is on, but it is leased to a company out of Iowa. After a salmonella outbreak on the Reservation, it was learned the grocery store chain was taking expired meat from stores in Nebraska, repackaging it, and selling it here as freshly processed meat.


The store is in the middle of the photo with the yellow truck at it.

  • Man from CA donated 50$K to build the skateboard park.


  • Every reservation has a college center.
  • 99% children receive free lunch at school.
  • Pine Ridge Jim Thorpe
  • I asked our guide if the historical trauma associated with modern schools using dorms left over from boarding schools was addressed. The answer was no. How would adults who had been in the system feel when dropping kids off at these schools!


That is an old boarding school in the background. It is still used as a part of the school.

  • Mills – gold medal winner
  • Katrina FEMA trailers have formaldehyde in them.
  • 89% unemployment – small business loans are hard to get.
  • Carlyle boarding school, Chief Red Cloud wanted to form his own school on the Reservation – each reservation was assigned a faith this reservation was Episcopalian. Katherine Drexel, daughter of a devout Episcopalian Philadelphia philanthropist, worked with the Chief to make it happen. It is now the best school on the Reservation academically .
  • 60 % local teachers – 95 % are native – 98% grad rate – 94% to college – other 6% to military or workforce ~ Bill and Melinda Gates scholars – Admissions test at Red Cloud – 600 students total 200 at each level. 50 – 70 % graduation rate at other schools.

The church below is across the street from the school, and these are our wonderful guides, home for the summer from Stanford. The church was lovely, but I couldn’t stay in it. After everything we heard and witnessed, and then to see the most beautiful building on the Reservation a church. It all felt like the worst sort of hypocrisy to stand in this church and discuss its beauty. Too much was stolen from these people in the name of religion, progress, and democracy for me to appreciate it at all.

  • Custer told the Lakota they had to go to their reservation, but they were already at their reservation.
  • Bobbi Red Cloud, great granddaughter to Chief Red Cloud, at the Red Cloud Monument (that’s our bus in the bottom photo)
  • Bettie’s Kitchen where Black Elk Speaks was transcribed and spoken.,
  • Manderson is a town where the hill is moving, so the windows cannot have screens on them, because the houses are becoming tweaked.


  • Timpsula: “Timpsula was probably the most important wild food gathered by Native Americans who lived on the prairies.  In 1805 the Lewis and Clark expedition observed plains Indians collecting, peeling, and frying it.”


  • These were in a museum that is down from the college.

We spent the evening saying our goodbyes. Michelle and I are saying goodbye to Paula Sibel, the trip coordinator at Re-Member.

8/21/2016: Depart Pine Ridge, Custer State Park: The Synthesis

When originally planning this trip, we intended to leave Re-member and drive to North Dakota to see some of Jim’s relatives or head right away toward Yellowstone. During the week I realized we were going to need some time to process what we experienced and saw at Pine Ridge. I did not spare us when I chose a location. We drove to Custer State Park in the Black Hills of South Dakota. I wanted all of us to see firsthand what had been lost. These are the Oglala Sioux’ ancestral lands that the Supreme Court agreed were wrongfully taken from them in their 1980 decision of the case the United States v. Sioux Nation of Indians. The Sioux tribes were “compensated” the paltry sum of 102 million dollars. I say paltry because now that I have been there, I know the land taken from them is stunningly beautiful, rich with resources, and verdant. Something the Reservation land the tribes were granted are not. 102 million dollars is not enough for this land. That is beside the point however, because the tribes won’t take the money and it has sat in an escrow account since. The tribe will not cash the “check” even though they could obviously use the money. This is a serious matter of principle for the tribe. The land was never for sale, and they feel if they take the money it will be tantamount to a sales transaction. What they want is the Black Hills back. After visiting them I understand why. This is a part of the Lakota’s historical trauma. The Black Hills that were taken from them need to be viewed in this context. That is what the four of us did.

For much of the year leading up to this trip we had been hearing the term white privilege. We had been hearing it said by some that all white Americans are inherently racist because of this privilege. Sean and I had read Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehesi Coates. The book resonated with two of us. On the Reservation white privilege, and what it means for people who don’t have it, was everywhere.

Sean’s Processing

I think the real problem is ignorance, indifference, and greed. I think these three things have led to the situation on Pine Ridge. It is impossible to deal with greed. There is nothing to be done about people who choose not to care about others and who take advantage of them for money.  The people motivated by greed look at other people as opportunities for becoming richer. They don’t care about helping people or doing the right thing, so they won’t change. If doing racist things helps them get what they want, they will do them. If using racism gets other people to give them what they want, they will use it.

I think part of the reason people are indifferent to these problems with racism is they feel they are the ones being blamed. They feel things like, “I didn’t kill Native Americans or make them impoverished.” The reason this works so well is because it is true. I believe the best way to get people to think about these issues is not to tell them the horrible things “white people” did, but to make them think about the horrible conditions Native Americans live in now and the fact that they could be helping.

I think all these problems are not of a single man but that of our culture. Our educational system teaches us lies about Native Americans. Many people are raised to care more about others inside of their social group. The problem is when we care about our social group and not all humans we give benefits to our group and are indifferent to people in other groups. When people are indifferent because they only care about others like themselves, their indifference is a big part of racism. In order to fix these problems we need a generation of different thinkers, thinkers who refuse to be indifferent about the plight of others.

There need to be politicians who legitimately care about the issues of the Native people. I left feeling that most politicians do not care about Native Americans, life on the Reservation, and the issues they are dealing with. I don’t believe these politicians are ignorant, so it has to be indifference and greed which translates into racist attitudes and policies.

The one thing, besides vote, we can do something about is ignorance. We can reach out to people who don’t know about this situation and hope by doing this people will start to care. I think there are a lot of people who don’t understand how bad it is for some Native Americans on reservations. It is important  we start to educate people with the truth and not lies so they will no longer be ignorant about Native Americans and what life is like on reservations like Pine Ridge.

Sean Lee, Age 15

In the summer of 2016 my family will return to the Reservation and continue our education.

Check out our previous post on handcrafting high school here.