Bishop Ward grad cherishes work with students on South Dakota reservation
by Jessica Langdon
KANSAS CITY, Kan. — Marcia Charbonneau knows there are plenty of people out there making bad news.
Fortunately, the parishioner of St. Patrick Parish in Kansas City, Kan., also knows a more inspiring world.
“There are good people out there doing good things,” she said.
In fact, several of those people were relaxing around her kitchen table at that very moment. Among them was her 25-year-old daughter Urse Charbonneau and several of Urse’s friends.
This group has spent years working with kids at the Red Cloud Indian School on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
There’s a lot of freedom to learn and grow as a teacher at Red Cloud, said Urse, a graduate of St. Pat’s, as well as a 2004 graduate of Bishop Ward High School in Kansas City, Kan.
Her desire to help others, she said, grew out of her Catholic upbringing.
But it was the Jesuit influence she encountered at St. Louis University that led her to discover a unique volunteer opportunity on the large reservation in rural South Dakota.
The statistics paint a dismal picture of Pine Ridge Reservation: an 80 percent unemployment rate, 61 percent of children living below the poverty line, and a county defined as the second poorest in the nation by its per capita income.
But the young adults who volunteer on the reservation know that’s only part of the story.
Instead, these adults talk about kids with hopes, dreams, talents and accomplishments.
Urse started her time at Red Cloud School in 2008, first serving in the middle school, running the after-school program and substitute teaching.
She soon entered a master’s program through Creighton University in Omaha, Neb., while continuing to teach middle-school social studies at Red Cloud.
The community quickly became a home, and she loved it so much she was hired on and stayed an extra year as a teacher.
The young adults who serve as teachers, aides, support staff, bus drivers, librarians and more share their own life experiences with the kids.
“It is a rural setting, so there’s not that much interaction with people from places around the country,” said Liz Welch, a second-year volunteer at Red Cloud. “Seeing a group of 20 people from all around the country I think really broadens their view of places they could go or schools that they could go to.”
Despite having more responsibilities at home than many teens elsewhere, Red Cloud students are still simply kids at heart.
They hang out with their friends. They join teams.
“It’s like the biggest unifying force,” Urse said.
Although this school isn’t exactly like the one he went to as a kid, volunteer Tim Sullivan quickly connected with the students — especially when he drove the school bus.
“I made them cookies and I came running onto the bus and I just hear this roar before I get on,” he said. “It’s like, ‘Tim! Tim!’ And this little 6-year-old girl was leading the charge in the front.”
Urse and another teacher hit the road for a trip across the state with several students in tow after three of the kids won an award.
Instead of sending everyone to bed at the end of the day, the group spent hours playing games and laughing.
It’s the kind of thing Urse knows the kids will remember for a long time.
The fun times make things easier when it’s time to get serious.
“You say, ‘Guys, we’ve got to come to work today,’ and they’re there and they’re ready,” said Tim.
The students’ achievements — many of them highlighted on the website at: www.redcloudschool.org — reflect that.
The school has 54 recipients of Bill and Melinda Gates Millennium Scholarships, the highest number per capita in the country. Seniors have received full scholarships to many colleges. All the students volunteer.
Not goodbye forever
“I love going to school every day,” said Urse. “I laugh a lot.”
So it was with a broken heart that she approached the principal this spring to give her notice and inform her that she plans to pursue something new next year.
Even when volunteers and employees leave Red Cloud, however, they’re often not saying goodbye forever.
Volunteer Anne Grass taught for three years at Red Cloud before leaving to teach in St. Louis.
“She sends letters every couple weeks,” said Tim, who took over the class Grass taught. “I get to watch kids’ faces light up” when they receive one.
One of the tough realities of the volunteer program is that most of the young adults eventually leave after a few years, he said.
“Our kids know that and see that and understand it better than we do,” said Tim.
‘The lucky ones’
The feeling of being a volunteer fades quickly for the adults who work with the kids at Red Cloud.
Tim finds himself explaining that often to people back home in Massachusetts.
“I always get this sense they think I’m sacrificing something by being there,” he said. The young adults all insist they’re not giving up a thing.
“We actually get a lot by doing this,” said Urse. “We’re the lucky ones.”