Catholic community finds a mission that hits close to home
by Jill Ragar Esfeld
Special to The Leaven
LAWRENCE — “We are poor,” said Monica Olivera, director of the Catholic Campus Center at Haskell Indian Nations University here.
“But we don’t have to leave the country to find people who are so much worse off than we are,” she added.
Olivera is recently back from a mission trip that center members made to a Native American reservation in South Dakota.
“It was really quite sad,” she said. “There is so much need there.”
Fortunately, with the outpouring of help they received from the Catholic community in Lawrence, the young missionaries were able to brighten the new year of their fellow Native Americans a little.
Haskell Indian Nations University is a land grant institution for members of federally recognized Native American tribes in the United States.
Olivera, who is originally from Peru, has been working with Native Americans at Haskell for four years. She’s familiar with their struggles — most members of the student body come from poor reservations; many are single parents trying to support a family while pursuing an education.
But a few months ago, Olivera watched a documentary, entitled “A Hidden America: Children of the Plains,” which took an in-depth look at an Indian reservation in South Dakota.
She was shocked by what she saw — Third World poverty here in the United States.
“I have seen that kind of poverty,” she said. “I was raised in Peru; I’ve been to India and other places.”
After watching the program, Olivera decided she had to do something.
“I know I have unemployed people in my community,” she said. “We’re struggling; we don’t have much money here.
“But we are a lot better off than they were.”
Olivera specifically wanted members of the Haskell Catholic Campus Center to be able to reach out to those whose need was greater than their own.
“I thought it’s important for our children in my community to know that there are other Natives here in the United States that are a lot worse off,” she said.
A local connection
Olivera shared her thoughts with Victoria Wilson, a member of the community who is working on a degree while supporting her three children.
She asked Wilson if she had any thoughts on how they could help fellow Native Americans on reservations in South Dakota.
Wilson’s response was quick, and positive.
“Yes,” she said. “I come from that area.”
Wilson’s mother, Goldie Stroup, who lives in Lawrence now, was born in a little log cabin just outside Eagle Butte, S.D.
“We’re actually Lakota Sioux,” explained Wilson. “But the tribe [in Eagle Butte] is named Cheyenne River Sioux.”
“My mom was born and raised there and we have family there,” she said. “So we go back for ceremonies — we’re still culturally connected with our tribe.”
With Wilson and her mother’s help, Olivera was able to make contact with the reservation at Eagle Butte.
She then arranged for her community to provide Christmas gifts for 55 children there.
When Olivera received a list of what the children wanted, she was surprised.
“They did not ask for toys,” she said. “It was a list of necessities — shoes and winter clothes.” The Haskell group added toys to the list and made 110 tags — one for each gift; two gifts for each of the 55 children. But how could a community that was struggling to provide for its own families, buy 110 gifts for others?
A call for help
“I prayed about it,” said Olivera. “And I called my friend Nancy [Krische, social and communications coordinator] from St. Lawrence [Catholic Campus Center].”
The St. Lawrence Center was happy to help out.
Word spread and Corpus Christi parishioners in Lawrence also volunteered to take some tags.
Then, St. John the Evangelist Parish’s Secular Franciscan Group and Hispanic Small Community Group offered to buy some gifts as well.
“The outpouring of generosity was just amazing to me,” said Olivera. “The willingness to help of people here in Lawrence really touched me.”
Some of the Haskell community children chose to use their own money, earned doing chores around the community center, to buy gifts. And they asked Olivera if they could send treats and cards to Eagle Butte.
“Even though here in Lawrence, they would probably be considered poor,” said Olivera, “the children, by their own planning and their own desire, decided that they all wanted to bake some cookies for the families. And they wanted to make their own cards.”
On the weekend before Christmas, a small group from the Haskell Catholic Campus Center, including Olivera, Wilson and Stroup, set out for Eagle Butte in a car and van packed tight with gifts and donated winter clothing.
To limit the amount of money spent on the trip, the group drove 13 hours straight through to Eagle Butte on Friday and drove back Sunday, another 13 hours straight through.
“It was plain and flat,” Olivera said of the drive into the reservation. “But it’s a different flat from Kansas. The land is not able to be farmed.
“It’s really a tough location for people. They’re extremely isolated.”
Eagle Butte is about three hours from the nearest city. The town itself has only a Dairy Queen, a Taco John’s, a gas station and a Dollar Day store. There is one hotel on the reservation.
It was clear to Olivera why most of the Native Americans here live in poverty.
“They can’t farm the land, and the young people can’t go find a job,” she said. “There’s nothing there.”
Wilson said her family had never visited in the winter months and she immediately understood why the children had asked for winter clothes instead of toys.
“Everybody is walking around with mismatched old sweats and sweaters,” she said. “They wear slippers instead of shoes because they can’t afford shoes.”
The Haskell group arranged to meet families in the hotel. When families showed up, they went immediately to the used clothing.
“The first thing most of them took were the coats,” said Olivera. “The parents were very, very grateful.”
Wilson was amazed at the change in attitude when the coats were donned.
At first, the children, walking around in old sweaters, “were holding their heads down because they were not proud of what they were wearing. “
And then I saw them light up after they got on jackets, and they were holding their chins up.
“It made me feel good to know they felt good.”
Olivera had also brought along a box of Christmas ornaments from Peru. She was surprised when the children dug through the box with excitement and began playing with the ornaments.
“I thought it was really interesting,” she said. “In Lawrence, children are so used to toys they would not even consider to play with something like that.
“But these children were all excited with it. For them, never having had a toy, that was fascinating.”
The children were equally delighted with the gifts, and Olivera was grateful to the Lawrence Catholic community for its generosity.
“For everybody who gave a gift, it’s not the gift that’s important,” she said. “I think what you did is you took Jesus, the Holy Spirit, to a child.”
Continuing the mission
Olivera and Wilson are still haunted by many of the images they saw on their trip: abandoned children, overcrowded trailers with inadequate heat, and children in need of medical help that simply isn’t available.
“And this is just one reservation out of a lot of reservations in that area,” said Olivera. “There is just so much poverty.”
“These people have so much to give,” added Wilson. “And yet they don’t even know how to get out of the cycle because they are stuck in it.”
It would be easy to feel overwhelmed and hopeless, but Olivera believes she is meant to find a way to help again.
“The need is out there and the response has been wonderful,” she said. “I honestly think God is working here.”
She hopes to make contact with a Catholic parish or community in South Dakota that the Haskell Catholic Campus Center can work through to help their fellow Native Americans.
“For me, this is just the beginning of something,” she said. “I’m just going to let the Holy Spirit take it from here.”
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