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SLUHN Staff Visit Reservation in South Dakota
September 28, 2022

A Lakota girl who just received a bunk bed to sleep in.

One of the most rewarding moments of Wanda Reitz’s recent trip to South Dakota was when she and her volunteer group delivered bunk beds to one of the families on the “Rez.” It meant that the Native American children would no longer have to sleep on the floor, Reitz said.

Reitz, MS, RN, who works at St. Luke’s University Health Network’s Carbon Campus, had made four service-learning trips to the reservation in South Dakota since 2011. Re-member, an independent, non-profit organization working with the Oglala Lakota Nation on the Pine Ridge Reservation, organized and hosted the week-long work camps she attended.

Reitz had wanted to go back again but COVID interfered. At the end of July, after a two-year hiatus, Reitz was able to travel once again. This time, Reitz was accompanied by other St. Luke’s staff including Sage Mitchell, RN, NICU; Brandy Andrews, RN, Allentown Campus; Kimberly Jones, MSN, RN, St. Luke’s School of Nursing; and Kate Sedler, St. Luke’s Radiology Manager, Carbon Campus; as well as Deborah Halliday of Moravian University and Emily Prendeville, a recent graduate nurse from Moravian.

The bunk beds they helped build were delivered complete with mattresses, sheets and a children’s book on the pillow, Reitz said. “Re-member builds and delivers hundreds of bunk beds every year to homes on the Rez,” she said. “And the families are always appreciative.”

Building relationships

The volunteer group from St. Luke’s and Moravian also helped with light carpentry work such as cutting insulated panels for skirting around trailers, which helps to contain the heat during the winter, and building outhouses, stairs leading up to homes and wheelchair ramps, “all with the purpose of making homes more livable,” Reitz said. Camp participants also collected and cut firewood to be used for heat during the long, cold winters in this area of South Dakota, Reitz said. Re-member has delivered more than 500 loads of firewood this year alone, she said.

Many homes on the reservation do not have electricity or running water.  Homes are primarily trailers or two-bedroom ranch-style houses that can have as many as 20 to 35 people living in them.   The children and family members sleep on the floor because there is little furniture.  It is also not uncommon for families and elders to be living in structures that are pieced together with any kind of materials to make shelter, Reitz said.

Pine Ridge Reservation is among the poorest communities in the United States, she said.  It encompasses 3,469 square miles with one hospital, one healthcare clinic and one grocery store.  The Oglala Lakota, part of the Sioux Tribe, have been living on the reservation since 1889.  Unemployment is rampant.  There is no industry, no retail stores, no commercial industry, nor factories that would produce jobs, Reitz said. The nearest Walmart is more than 90 miles away.

The primary goal of the volunteers of Re-member is to develop relationships with the Lakota by putting down the shovel, drill or hammer to talk or listen or to play with the kids.   “We are there to be present, to learn, and to see the beauty of people coming together with one goal,” Reitz said.  “Volunteers were often greeted with the phrase Mitakuye Oyasin, which in Lakota means we are all related – the philosophy of the purpose of the experience.”

The big event and highlight of the week was the Health and Wellness event that took place on the Oglala Lakota Nation Pow Wow grounds.  This was the first time that Re-member hosted a wellness event that was the collaborative efforts of physicians, NPs and RNs from all over the U.S.  The health care volunteers staffed four educational booths and provided education about diabetes, the health benefits of drinking water instead of sugary drinks or diet sodas, how to make use of garden vegetables and basic first aid.  The booths had handouts, games and interactive activities for the kids and adults.

The volunteers also attended the Oglala Lakota Nation Pow Wow, which is an experience of a lifetime, Reitz said.  The rich and beautiful culture of the Lakota are displayed during this spiritual ceremony involving feasting, singing, dancing and drumming.  “It is an honor for the volunteers to be invited to such an event by the Tribe,” Reitz said.

Delivered tote bags to women

Before the group from St. Luke’s and Moravian left, they collected items for Operation Outreach Donation for Women on the Rez.  “We were able to donate 100 tote bags for Oglala Lakota women and teens who live on Pine Ridge Reservation,” Reitz said. The tote bags contained sanitary pads, tampons, socks, undies, hairbrush, toothbrush, toothpaste and other miscellaneous items that are difficult to get on the reservation. Items for the totes were provided with donations by SLUHN, Moravian College Sigma Theta Tau Nursing Honor Society and trip volunteers.                                       

Reitz had become interested in Native Americans when she learned that she might have had some ancestors who were members of the Cherokee tribe. Although genealogy tests disproved that lineage, Reitz became a student of Native American culture and fascinated with the Lakota, who are among the poorest in America. She determined to do what she could to help lift them up.

Reitz would love to go again next year but isn’t sure if it will happen because planning the trip takes a great deal of work and it is rather expensive, she said. Reitz and her colleagues spent more than a year planning their most recent trip. But knowing what she gets from the trips, she said, “I am probably looking at more in the future.”