GREENWICH, Conn. -- Six teenagers from Greenwich stepped outside their comfort zone this summer for a week to help change the lives of residents of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in South Dakota.
In doing so, they changed their own lives as well.
The students are members of Greenwich High School’s AVID program, or Advancement Via Individual Determination. They partnered with Round Hill Community Church , Boys & Girls Club of Greenwich and a Norwalk-based company, Simply Smiles, to spend a week on the reservation.
Pastor Dan Haugh of Round HIll Community Church, who served as one of the chaperones, said the students worked at homes on the reservation, doing painting, light carpentry, flooring and restoration work. They also led camp activities for 30 to 40 children, ranging in age from 4 to 16. Activities included crafts, sports and traditional summer activities.
The students also lived for the week in a “community house,” spending nights in sleeping bags in a room that included the entire travel party. There were nearly 35 in the house, including chaperones and Simply Smiles workers and volunteers.
“Our slogan at the church is we want to be a force for good,’’ Haugh said. “We discovered that Simply Smiles is doing just that on the reservation. We wanted to embed ourselves on the reservation for a week. We ate what they ate, and tried to live to like they live for one week. The hard part was knowing that after one week, we’d be back in our comfort zone but the people we fell in love with would not be coming home with us.”
Haugh said living conditions on the reservation were dire. The homes were dilapidated, broken down by neglect and harsh, extreme weather.
“There’s a 150-degree difference between summer and winter,’’ he said. “The houses are not insulated for that and not maintained well.”
Education is minimal, and health issues, such as diabetes and obesity are rampant. “It was eye-opening,’’ Haugh said. “Where they are living is very much like a third world environment. They don’t have the resources to improve their quality of life, and they don’t have many people advocating for them.”
Education is particularly challenging. Children don’t aspire for academic achievements. “They see no benefit of graduating high school,’’ Haugh said. “It’s shocking. We asked them ‘What do you want to be?’ They said nothing. Education is not a prized attribute.”
In a recent partnership, Fairfield University offered high school graduates from the reservation a full scholarship. The first student from the reservation is expected to attend the college this year.
The hardships endured by residents of the reservation impacted the Greenwich students, who came home with a renewed appreciation for their surroundings.
“Our students had two main takeaways,’’ Haugh said. “One, they realized how much they take for granted. The education, the resources and the opportunities they have here. They have the support of family and teachers who care about their education. That was an eye-opening lesson.
“Secondly, they realize these are stories that need to be shared. There’s a real need to help these people through community service.”
The students’ communities in Greenwich could be the ultimate winners from the trip. Haugh believes the students returned from the trip motivated to volunteer in their communities
“We’re hoping to create student leaders,’’ he said. “They saw the impact one week could have. They made people smiles. But imagine what impact they can make in the local community if they could do it every week.”See Attachment