Eagle Butte is a small city with big city problems surrounded by vast open land on a reservation. When you ask how many people live in Eagle Butte, no one really knows. They guess somewhere around 2,000-3,000 people.
From what I saw, the main issues that Eagle Butte faces are poverty, diabetes, alcoholism, and meth. The widespread use of alcohol and the rising use of meth have a ripple effect. Children as young as fifth grade are joining gangs. For many children alcohol and drug use is their norm. Sadly, it hinders brain developement and in the case of meth, literally creates holes in your brain. Many of these children who are born to alcoholic parents are already starting behind their peers in brain developement. This makes education, one of the foundations of breaking the poverty cycle, an uphill battle.
The drugs also cause parents to make poor decisions for their children. While initially it is the person who
chooses to use the drug, when addiction sets in, it is the power of the drug over that person that causes them to make unthinkable decisions such as feeding their habit verses their child. Some of the unemployed who receive jobs, cannot hold them because they fail to show up to work due to their overconsumption. There is also the issue of sexual assault brought on primarily through drug use.
Diabetes is an issue that stems from poverty in this area. Nutritious food is expensive. Many homes have multiple families living in them and very little money to feed them all. So they buy the most calories for their dollar. Sadly, these calories are full of fat, sugar, and chemicals. It curbs the hunger, but does not feed the body or the mind. These high levels of fat and sugar bring on diabetes.
I realize my opening remarks make things sound rather bleak, but there are efforts being made to correct some of these issues. There are 7-8 churches ministering to different issues. The one who housed us for the evening is focused on educating children and keeping them from falling into drug use. They currently work with the Windswept Academy.
The Windswept Academy opened 4 years ago. They opened with 12 students and now they are at their capacity of 40 students and needing to turn students away. They are praying for funds to open a larger facility so they can continue to add the additional students. Bullying in the public schools was mentioned as the number one reason for families wanting their children to attend there.
The staff there are committed not only to academics, but also the well being of the children. They realize many of their children do not receive food at home. Therefore, they provide both breakfast and lunch. It is the necessary nutrition that allows their brains to learn.
Two of the staff members even go above and beyond working with some of the alcoholic parents. They encourage them to commit themselves to a rehab program and take temporary custody of their children while they do. That way the child can continue to attend school while their parent is in rehab and causes less disruption in their lives.
The KAH food from the Sophomore Service Project will be used to feed the children at the school once a week for a year. This is a wonderful gift since a number of the families cannot afford the tuition which is suppose to pay for the food.
In an area with the pressures of inner city gangs and drug use, I did come across and hear of some promising role models. One I met when we toured the new Senior Citizen Center that is getting ready to open. The woman giving the tour was clearly intelligent and professional. I was so impressed by her I needed to ask her additional questions. She is native to Eagle Butte, but chose to go off of the reservation to acquire additional schooling in New Mexico and California. Now she is back using her education and talents to further her hometown. She encourages her youngest daughter of eight to do the same and cites herself as an example that you can always return to the reservation. When I asked her what prompted her to leave the reservation for New Mexico, she responded it was her dad. He advised, "The government will not always provide for you. You need to find a way to provide for yourself." Wow! What a great role model she had and has become.
For those without a role model at home, there are some outside of the home. In addition to the teachers I met at Windswept Academy, one woman has started a jr. marine corps club. This is to help teach discipline and structure to children who do not receive it or develop these skills at home. There is a native band, Broken Walls, who in addition to performing, talk to teenagers about the pitfalls of alcohol and drug use. Clearly, the tribal council is also trying to address these issues. While walking through the tribal council facility, there were a number of flyers deterring the use of meth.
The food pantry works hard to provide nutritious food to the families who cannot afford it. They currently have 800 families registered with them. They do not deter someone if they do hold a job. They do not want someone who cannot feed their family with their paycheck to feel they need to go back on welfare to get assistance.
The facility itself is well organized and clean. They recieve food from a few organizations in addition to KAH-WM. Running Strong sends turkeys and meals around the holidays. Hunters for the Hungry donate deer and pheasant meat. National Relief Charities periodically send food. They also purchase food from Feeding South Dakota at .18/pound. I did note that their refrigerator for fresh food was for the most part empty. Also, at least half of the shelving was stocked with the remainder of the KAH food from the pack-a-thon. From a quick calculation, it appears they have given out approximately 75,000 meals since the pack-a-thon. The meals are put in bags with other donated items and handed out.
It was a trip of discovery for me. I was pleased with the operation of the food pantry and touched by the efforts of the Windswept Academy. The children I met were adorable and they thoroughly enjoyed the MHS students who helped tudor them for a morning. Hopefully, these children will become future role models for the next generation.