A Transformative Adventure

Originally posted at Trees, Water & People/TWP Tours

By Victoria Blonde, Lansing Catholic High School Class of 202

“One of the most important things you can do on this earth is to let people know they are not alone” -Shannon L. Alder. Amidst the mess that had been the summer in between my junior and senior years of Highschool, I had the life-changing opportunity to attend a mission trip to South Dakota with my school, guided by Trees, Water, and People. The South Dakota trip hadn’t been my first choice, I had actually signed up to go on my school’s Alabama mission trip but the pandemic hit two weeks before, and for something that has caused so much pain, I couldn’t be more grateful that it canceled the trip looking back. The trip had been fully paid for, so I had to pick a different mission trip to go on in Junior year, and the next one that was scheduled to take place was the South Dakota trip. Two of my friends, Claire and Anna, had been on the trip before Sophomore year and raved about what they experienced then. I knew the South Dakota trip would be out of my comfort zone, being so far from home, and in more rural conditions than I was used to living in, in the Capitol of Michigan, yet I still decided to go. I’m not going to lie, the first couple of days on this trip were pretty rough for me, I was in a strange place, with little to no cell reception (which I am aware is a total first world problem) and I had never been that far from my family. But it was totally worth it in the end.

Students taking a group photo at the Red Table Overlook, showing an epic view of the Badlands National Park.

I have always loved community service, especially soup kitchens and things of that nature. At our first location, Cheyenne River Youth Project, we would get up early to go work on a garden that needed lots of attention and weeding. I have never been much of a gardener besides watering my neighbors flowers while they were on vacation, and I have always had a fear of bugs. But even so, I wanted to help others, so I did. We went to town on this garden and got to have lots of fun discussions and conversations about little things and big things while we weeded. Now, this was obviously not the most fun thing to do, especially with a couple of close encounters with bugs, but the second morning we weeded will always stand out in my memories of the trip. The first morning had been hot and the air was dry and dusty with not much wind or clouds, we got hot and sweaty very fast. But the second morning was very different. It was blessedly cooler than the first day, there was a nice breeze and a little drizzle of rain too. This was the first time in probably all my life I was completely at peace amongst the bugs and the weeds. It was also one of the first moments on the trip I was so overwhelmingly grateful to be there, and be able to help others. And there’s nothing quite like that feeling of being overcome with thankfulness for your surroundings and I got to experience it then.

Students weeding in the early morning at the Cheyenne River Youth Project garden, located in Cheyenne River Reservation.

That night we got to experience a local Lakota storyteller thanks to the coordination of our friends from Trees Water and People, Daniela and James, which was a very immersive experience. I have studied Greek Mythology throughout my years in Highschool and have always loved learning about different cultures and their legends and beliefs, so I was completely drawn to hearing stories about the Lakota people, and it was definitely an experience that I will never forget. Throughout our week in South Dakota we had many other opportunities to merge ourselves into the culture of the Lakota People, including a drum circle, making traditional jewellery, hearing more about the culture, and a visit to the Wounded Knee Memorial.

Students enjoying a local drum group on their final day of the trip at Thunder Valley CDC.

One of the other impactful things that stands out to me looking back on my trip is our visit to Chief Henry Red Cloud’s house. While dinner was being cooked, Henry told us many stories of his people, and his own journey through life. Specifically how he pioneered bringing new and accessible technology to his area, and how he got an honorary Doctorate for the impact he has had. But the message he left us with stuck the most with me. He was telling us to look at what he was able to accomplish and how far he got and the change he brought about, he left us saying that we are the next generation and we need to be the change we want to see in the world, especially along the line of protecting the environment for the generations after us to enjoy the same earth we do.

Students placing the last pieces of wood onto an outdoor stage that they helped finish. Finalizing their last service project at Cheyenne River Youth Project.

The whole experience of this trip was so memorable and every moment was so special and unique that it would be impossible to capture it all in-text adequately. We got to mix work, fun, and education all into one great travel experience unlike any other I have experienced. In the beginning, I was homesick and feeling unprepared for the week ahead, but by the end, I wouldn’t have wanted to leave at all if not for my dog waiting back home for me. This trip taught me so many lessons about the people around me and the life of the Lakota people. At the end of the week, Daniela asked us all to share a phrase that summed up the week. The word that came to my mind was “life-changing” and I didn’t share that word because I thought it was too powerful and instead used “eye-opening.” But now looking back I know that “life-changing” is completely correct to describe the time I spent in South Dakota with some of my classmates, Daniela, James, and others. One thing I want to leave you with relates back to the quote above and is most important after (and continuing through) the Pandemic where we have been so separated from each other. One of the best ways to let someone know they are not alone is to serve them and be there for them in even the smallest ways. “For even the Son of Man did not come to be served, but to serve…” Mark 10:45.