The power of volunteerism, a story from South Dakota – By Lavinia Ortu

By Lavinia Ortu

When I hopped off the bus at the Eagle Butte Youth center I felt the snow on my bare ankles, the caress of the cold South Dakotan wind, it was February after all, and the temperature there reaches   – 30 degrees every winter. The lights, from inside the big windows of the building in front of me, were drawing me inside, it looked warm and cozy.

As the whole group of volunteers was carrying the luggage inside, big clouds of steam were slowly rising toward the sky from our chatting in the cold, we were all excited and ready to get to work. At the door a sweet lady, that I later found out to be one of the founding figures at the youth center, received us with a smile. 

My name is Lavi, when I was 17 I moved to the United States to study abroad. During the school year, I had the opportunity to apply for different volunteering projects around the United States through my high school. The one that I was looking forward the most was the “Cheyenne river youth project”. I loved the opportunity to work with kids for some time, travel to South Dakota and learn something from the experience. 

The second morning at the Youth center I got out of my sleeping bag and got ready for a day full of work. First stop was Mary’s house, a cat lover with lots of plants, she is responsible for building mini houses for the community. She welcomed us with coffee, gave us some directions regarding the project and we all got to work right away. I was scared and excited; I didn’t know how to insulate houses or how to place the flooring; besides, it was so cold that the water bottles would freeze within minutes, even inside the small houses. I learnt so much over the 3 days spent on the construction site; everyone in the team was working toward the same goals, the most skilled members would always help out the weakest ones.

I got a real sense of empowerment and happiness throughout all the projects we did. There was never a dull moment; whether we were preparing a drive through or planning a basketball tournament for the kids; nothing paid off more than seeing the children smile, having fun together. 

Even if my back hurt at night, and the sleeping bag was way too thin to soften the hardness of the bare floor underneath, I never struggled falling asleep, happy and fulfilled after a long day of work. 

Happiness really comes from the little things, I lost track of time, being always busy doing something different, to the point that when it was finally time to leave I would have rather stayed more; which is something hard to achieve with a paying job; as a matter of fact I was always happy to clock out where I was employed at the time.  

During my stay, I was able to get to know the Cheyenne River reservation really closely. This reserved area is home to 4 bands of the “Titunwan” people. I was lucky to meet these groups during some gatherings that we organised. I remember sitting in big circles, the smell of special spices slowly filling the atmosphere; the products, freshly picked from the garden outside the youth center, piled in baskets on the tables; the sound of ancient chants in the distance that gave me goosebumps every time. I remember feeling the bittersweet sense of pride in the community; the powerlessness defeat for loosing what once was their territory. 

This community is one of the great populations forced to give up ownership of their own land in North America. The land where they built their beliefs and traditions over thousands of years. Along with other groups they were once able to look at the horizon, knowing that they could live freely and proudly in direct contact with mother hearth. Through the centuries, forced to adapt, they had to modernise their way of life; follow routines that didn’t align with their identity anymore; forget their language even; surrender to unknown diseases. This is why it is so important to learn more about their traditions and empower the younger generations to always keep alive their pride. 

Through volunteering I learnt the value of understanding different cultures. The biggest reward is being able to help each other grow in an ever-changing multicultural world. We are evolving to be interconnected more and more everyday, we have the opportunity to change both ours and other people’s lives with one click. We don’t have to travel far to find a volunteering job, it’s a reality that can happen as close as one’s own neighbourhood but the benefits within it are endless. 

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