When people started asking me if I was going home for fall break, I loved telling them "No. I am going to South Dakota." Their usual response was "What's in South Dakota?" This gave me the opportunity to reveal just how excited I was to be going on an Immerse Yourself in Service (IYS) trip to volunteer on a Native American reservation. (At that point, I didn't realize the importance of acknowledging the specific tribe I would be working with.) The mere idea of going to somewhere I had never been to do things I had never done with people I had never met was so thrilling that I loved telling my friends about it over and over again.
The adventure was only one of the reasons I went. Throughout my life, I have been impacted by stories of extreme poverty. Many people feel sorry for me because I am disabled. I find this almost puzzling because there are so many people around the world who live much more difficult lives than I do. The first time I remember being truly emotionally touched by poverty is in my 6th grade "The World and Its People" class. Our teacher was evil. I nicknamed her Mrs. Meanypoopyhead after she humiliated me in front of the entire class because I didn't do my homework. She lectured me about how I had been spoiled because I was disabled and needed to be taught a lesson. I have never quite forgiven her for that, but she did say one wise thing during that school year. After our Africa unit, which mainly focused on 3rd world poverty, she told us to feel "responsible instead of guilty." I wasn't sure what that meant, and the question bothered me all throughout my high school career. Guilt nagged at me. As a teenager, I had more resources than most adults of the world did. Despite this, I did nothing. Enclosed within the safe bubble that economic privilege provides, I separated myself from the inequality that defines America and much of the world. When I first learned about IYS trips during the student organization fair, I signed up immediately. It was time to ease the guilt.
On the first day of fall break, the six of us, our suitcases, and my wheelchair crammed ourselves into a minivan to make the twenty-hour drive to Dupree, SD. By the time we arrived, we had an in-depth knowledge of each other's music tastes and a deep desire to raise our GPAs so that we would never have to be truck drivers. We didn't talk much in the car. We were all from very different Oberlin circles. Our leaders were two 3rd-years named Machmud and Bea. Machmud is a tall, handsome baseball player who, in any other circumstance, I wouldn't have approached with a 10-foot pole. Bea is much less intimidating. She is a quiet psychology major whose calm kept us all grounded. The rest of us were equally different. Tony is a subtly funny 2nd-year theater and religion major. Erica, the other 2nd-year, was a pre-med and neuroscience major whose huge brain proved very helpful in solving daily conundrums. Finally, there was Shosh and me. Shosh is a 4th-year studio art major with a personality twice the size of her short stature. Her energy immediately attracted me to her and we became fast friends. Over the course of the week, we all became incredibly close. It's hard not to become close to people you are cooking, talking, and working with every day. These bonds proved very valuable as we all tried to adjust to our temporary new life.
I knew very little about where we were going before I got there. My picture of Native American reservations consisted of trailer parks surrounded by vast plains. I thought the YMCA would look like the one in my neighborhood. I imagined sleeping on army cots in the middle of a huge gym with a swimming pool down the hall. Obviously, this wasn't the most logical assumption, but my naïve mind couldn't think of anything else.
In fact, the Y was a log cabin. It had a kitchen smaller than the one in Dascomb, a computer lab with about eight PCs, a few offices, and two activity rooms. The reservation, referred to by the locals as "the rez," was about the size of Connecticut. To my surprise, there were many non-Natives living on the rez, and it wasn't filled with trailer parks. There were many trailers, but there were a fair number of actual houses. Most were in really poor condition, though. We were in Dupree, a town within the reservation. Dupree is the second poorest town in the country.
The Y's main mission was to provide an after-school program for the kids on the reservation, so our work there was centered on this program. In the mornings, we would make breakfast and then have a cultural presenter come to talk to us. The cultural presenters varied from a man who taught us to make elaborate dream catchers to a couple who took teens from the rez on a two-week horseback riding trip from South Dakota to Montana every summer. The main employees of the Y were constantly reminding us that we shouldn't view our time there as a "service trip" but rather a cultural learning experience. After lunch, we often worked cleaning up a big storage shed the Y used to house extra supplies and donations. Then, at 3pm, the kids showed up.
Spending time with the kids was the highlight of the trip. The tribe we were working with was the Lakota tribe, and one of their main values is humor. Those kids love to tease, and we were able to tease them right back. When one boy with a buzz cut told me that I "walk and talk like an old lady," I responded by pointing out that he looked like a baby because he had no hair. The next day, Tony, the only African American member of our group, nearly made me burst with laughter when he responded to a kid's question about his dark skin by saying that he had spent way too much time in the sun.
Despite the humor, there were dark undertones to our time with them. We knew that most of the stable adults in the kids' lives were never around for more than a year. As our relationships became increasingly close, our awareness that we were leaving in just a few days grew. To the children, we were just brief blips in their lives. Many of them hung around the Y long after it had closed because they didn't want to go home. Their home lives were often plagued by parental neglect and substance abuse.
This was never made more obvious than through the lives of three brothers who I am going to call Mickey, Charlie, and John. Charlie is the youngest of the three. He is two and was often at the Y even though the program is meant for kids between the ages of six and twelve. Mickey is seven and has some sort of severe disability. All the Y staff knows is that his mother drank while she was pregnant with him and at one point fell on ice and landed directly on her stomach. Mickey has gross and fine motor deficiencies and can't say a word. He is extremely thin because he has a difficult time feeding himself. Both of these boys were usually taken care of by their older brother, John, who is only nine. You could see them wandering around town without adult supervision.
As cliché as this sounds, Mickey really tugged at my heartstrings. He had never met anyone disabled like he was, so the moment he heard my voice he became instantly attached to me. He followed me around and loved to stick leaves in my mouth and giggle. No matter how much fun I had with him, the experience was really depressing. Mickey had never gotten any of the therapy I had that taught me how to walk and talk. He had absolutely no means of communication even though I'm sure he's capable of learning sign language and using a machine that can talk for him. People with disabilities can do many more things independently if they're taught how to do them and have the equipment they need.
After making dinner, the group would debrief before going to bed. No matter what the topic was, I always managed to bring up Mickey. Many of the Y staff were touched by my constant rambling. They admitted that it was often hard for them to see just how bad the situation was because it had become normalized for them. They said that it was when groups like us came and were so astonished by life on the rez that they were reminded of how abnormal the problems are. Going to bed was the most difficult time of day because right before leaving for the trip, I had purchased a very luxurious $100 sleeping bag. My family is by no means wealthy, and it took me several days to decide to buy the sleeping bag. Due to my lack of gross motor skills, I can't really make a bed very well. Therefore, I sleep in a sleeping bag every night. It makes my life feel like one big summer camp. I had a warm-weather sleeping bag, but it was definitely time to get something for Jack Frost's arrival. I really wanted something nice. Despite my hesitation, I was able to easily buy it with some of my graduation money. I was in one of the poorest places in the country sleeping in a sleeping bag that cost more than many of residents' daily income.
Although the experience was emotionally and physically exhausting, none of us were ready to leave. Our attachment to the kids may have come quickly, but leaving them was very difficult. Watching Mickey and Charlie walk away was so hard that I had to go inside and get a drink so that I wouldn't cry. The drive home almost felt short because I couldn't grapple with the fact that we were leaving for good.
Two weeks after we returned, I received a Facebook message from one of the Y staff telling me that they were able to convince Mickey's mom to let him go to a special residential school where he will receive therapy. I know I had a tiny part in making this happen. I constantly pushed the issue because I knew that Mickey was capable of much more than people imagined. Obviously, I wasn't the main reason Mickey got this chance. I'm just grateful that I could have an impact on his life, no matter how small.
That night, as I lay in my $100 sleeping bag beaming with joy, I realized what Mrs. Meanypoopyhead meant. Guilt is a useless, terrible emotion. It makes you feel awful, but it doesn't help anyone. The difference between guilt and responsibility is simple: When you feel guilty, you spend days wondering about whether you deserve the $100 sleeping bag you can afford to buy, and if you do buy it, you feel terrible every time you get in it. When you feel responsible, you buy the sleeping bag instantly, and feel grateful that you can afford it. Then, you vow to take that sleeping bag places where you can make a difference.
Here at Oberlin, we are getting one of the best educations in the world. We need to feel responsible because we know about many of the issues that plague our society. Guilt isn't going to get us anywhere. I would highly recommend going on an Immerse Yourself in Service trip. It's a life-changing experience that allows you to go do something with all of the knowledge you receive here.
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