SIMPLY SMILES – Mission Trips to South Dakota
MAKING A SAFE SPACE FOR LAKOTA CHILDREN IN SOUTH DAKOTA
Text by Tina Olsen, Photo by Erick Olsen
In the summer of 2021, a group from Norfolk’s Church of Christ UCC will travel to the Cheyenne River Reservation to spend a week with the Lakota Sioux tribe in South Dakota. From June 20 to 26, participants will work with the organization Simply Smiles to serve the needs of the Lakota community while learning about their culture and history.
This past summer, a Church of Christ-led group of 14 spent a week living and working on the reservation, located in La Plant, S.D. The focus of this work-camp trip was planning and leading multiple activities each weekday to provide a summer camp experience for between 25 and 50 Lakota children. Activities included reading quietly, building and launching rockets, playing disc golf, and working on countless arts and crafts.
“No matter the activity,” said group member Reg Denny, “our goal of providing a safe and healthy environment for these kids to be kids was at the forefront of our minds.” The bonds forged between volunteers and the children were often quite strong. “The sad reality,” said Denny, “was that each day had to end.”
For the upcoming trip, the focus will shift to include construction work. Simply Smiles is engaged in building a Children’s Village, a “first-of-its-kind intentional community of Native foster families,” according to the website. The village will be a “place where Native foster parents protect, provide for and nurture Lakota children,” many of whom experience violence at home and struggle with PTSD, facing a high risk of winding up in jail. Norfolk volunteers, as of this writing, should expect to split each day between working in the morning on readying homes in the village and spending afternoons mostly with reservation children.
Another participant from this past summer, Katie Roth of Norwalk, said, “the Simply Smiles facility and employees provide a welcome environment of safety and understanding for local children, who may be experiencing a tough situation.” The Children’s Village project seeks to strengthen the commitment to safety and compassion for tribal children.
The overall mission of Simply Smiles is, according to their website, “to provide bright futures for children, families and communities.” The organization partners with populations in need to create physical and emotional environments where suffering is alleviated and from which local leaders can emerge. Self-determination for the Lakota tribe is central to the work of Simply Smiles, paving the way to a brighter future for all.
“These trips give us a chance to live what we often talk about as a faith community” said Erick Olsen, Church of Christ’s pastor. “We of course bring love to share, but we at least as importantly make this journey with open hearts and spirits, knowing that we will gain even more than we offer.” Olsen added that the combination of hands-on construction with dedicated time for play and relationship-building has “powerful potential for us all.”
Any readers interested in joining this trip are encouraged to contact the church office at 860-542-5721.