It has happened again.
My husband and daughter have run away from home.
Just in case the thought may have crossed your mind, nope, they haven’t left to join a traveling Big Top. And to be fair, I know precisely where they are; how long they’ll be gone, and even what their highway route was, and will be, coming back.
There’s this, too: although our daughter wasn’t exactly thrilled to go on this journey, my better half was itching, bad, to hightail it out of our little town as soon as possible. In fact, this is the third summer that he, with a vanload of other teenagers besides our kid, has driven off to a place that he looks forward to, really, really, really looks forward to going to, all year long. (He also knows that I don’t take his get-me-outta-here attitude personally, so, we’re good.)
They’re in South Dakota.
At this time of year, The Mount Rushmore State is hot, really hot. It’s humid, really humid. It also rains, a lot. And the cherry topping the cake right now? It’s tornado season.
But maybe, if they were there for only a few days to see the historic monument that the state’s nickname refers to, or camp in the majestic Black Hills National Forest, or even spend some time at Wall Drug—the largest drug store in the world, honeymooners can still get a free cup of coffee and donut there—those Mother Nature inconveniences wouldn’t be that big of a deal.
But no one in this group is very interested in being that kind of tourist.
Instead, they’re all living barracks style, with many other strangers, in the town of Fort Thompson, ranked by the U.S. Census as the poorest town in the poorest county in the United States. This hardscrabble region is also the site of the Crow Creek Indian Reservation, home to about 1,800 Lakota Sioux natives. So, it’s here, and for a few more weeks now, where the two people I love most in the world are volunteers on a long-term Habitat of Humanity project.
Yes, they’re building houses, but doing a lot more, too.
Among other tasks, they make hundreds of pancakes every Sunday for a community breakfast; cart away debris and hand out sandwiches after massive thunderstorms, and cook and deliver food to those who are housebound. Each year, too, my daughter has galloped across the plains on horses who are direct descendants of war ponies, and last summer, she learned to bottle feed a newborn calf. As it turns out, she’s also a natural equestrian, riding bareback most of the time with only a halter, so she might even be called on to be a real cowgirl on a real cattle drive.
To be brutally honest, the initial attraction of South Dakota wasn’t born out of altruism, at least for me.
Rather, it was to find a long term, community service project that my high school daughter could take part in. It had to be domestic because our budget can’t accommodate a fancy overseas trip. And, it also had to be something that would show potential colleges that she could be both committed and consistent to one project over a period of several years, something that admissions officers now look for, especially with kids like mine who aren’t straight A students.
The fact that Crow Creek is under the Habitat for Humanity umbrella made the idea that much more attractive.
But something unexpected, and magical, happened to my husband along the way.
“It’s the Ikce Oyate, which means ‘ordinary people’ in the Lakota language, who keep drawing me back,” he says. “Simply put, they’re a people who define the word ‘disenfranchised’—a people whose life experience is wrought with the despair of the belief that no one cares.
“Well, I care! And the students who travel there with me have learned to care.
“We, too, are Ikce Oyate, and we love our brothers and sisters.”
That's a pretty powerful statement—and perhaps my husband has this sort of passion because his great grandmother was a full-blooded Shawnee native.
He has never known her name, and he has never even seen a photo of her, but he still remembers, with perfect clarity, his father’s instructions about her.
Never, ever, he repeatedly told my spouse as a child, tell anyone he had “Indian blood” for fear of being turned down to buy a house; attend a school of his choosing, or even get a bank loan (it’s reprehensible that every one of these scenarios was commonplace mere decades ago).
So, maybe, serving at Crow Creek provides a means for my husband to not only connect with his past, but in a tiny way, the work here makes up for the shame his family carried around not so long ago.
But I have also come to believe that my partner’s desire to serve the Lakota goes much deeper.
More, it has to do with what’s in his very core (and one of the many reasons I adore him). And that is this: the honest desire to serve—after all, he is a teacher by profession and has been for decades—and the immense satisfaction he receives from giving to others.
For now, I’m in charge of the home front.
We have three big dogs to feed and brush and love; there’s a house and yard to sweep and dust and water, and without fail, bills to pay. I usually pick up some extra cash writing at this time of year as well, something, of course, that wouldn’t happen if I went to Crow Creek. And, to be perfectly candid here, it’s also my time to see some over-the-top romantic movies, and dine at a few serious foodie restaurants that my husband is, at best, lukewarm about visiting.
Still, every year, despite the heat and humidity and tornadoes, and despite the fact that I’d be sleeping in a bunk bed and living out of a suitcase for a month, there’s something about this journey that is slowly calling to me.
Maybe, next summer, I’ll be hiring a house sitter.
What sorts of community service projects have you done, and which ones have especially touched your heart? I hope to hear from you!
p.s. To find out more about this very special Habitat for Humanity project, visit www.dacokatipis.org.