BRATTLEBORO -- The Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota is a long way from Brattleboro, and not just as the crow flies.
Flat, dry, and lacking vegetation, Pine Ridge is also without many of the blessings of comfortable life taken for granted here.
Little wonder then, that Art Greenbaum didn't exactly feel at home when he swung near the Pine Ridge Reservation while on a family trip last October. But he was on a mission.
Representing the Brattleboro Rotary Club, Greenbaum was there to deliver sewing machines and laptop computers to residents of Pine Ridge. The trip made quite an impression on him.
"They were very appreciative of us taking the time to meet them. My impressions of the folks that I met were they were gracious, yet cautiously optimistic," said Greenbaum.
Greenbaum also brought a Rotary flag, the goodwill of people in Brattleboro and one other thing -- three jugs of Vermont maple syrup.
"They were very excited to have that. I don't think they ever had that before," said Greenbaum.
There's a lot the people of Pine Ridge don't have. Frequently ranked as the poorest county in the U.S., the Pine Ridge Reservation has per capita income of $4,000, an unemployment rate of between 73 and 85 percent, an infant mortality rate that's twice the national average, a life expectancy 20 years lower than average, higher suicide rates, poverty rates and incidences of diabetes and alcoholism.
Statistics like those are what brought Greenbaum to South Dakota. His trip there was the first step in a new commitment by the Brattleboro Rotary Club to help the people of Pine Ridge.
A couple of years ago, Marty Cohn, current president of Brattleboro Rotary Club, saw a program on TV documenting the troubles of people on Pine Ridge.
"After we watched this, my wife and I said ‘We've got to do something,'" recalled Cohn.
The Brattleboro Rotary Club has a long history of international good works, including founding Pure Water for the World. Cohn and his fellow Rotarians successfully made the case that helping Pine Ridge, which is officially a sovereign nation, would qualify as another international project. The result is a five-year commitment the local Rotary Club has to help Pine Ridge.
An appearance by John Willis, photographer and founder of the In-Sight Photography Project, at a Rotary lunch last spring helped galvanize that commitment.
In-Sight founded the Exposures program, a cross-cultural exchange program that connects youth from Vermont, Chicago and elsewhere with young people from Pine Ridge. At the lunch, Willis showed photographs he took there and spoke passionately about his feelings for the people of Pine Ridge.
"John's pictures really told the story. Knowing we had a guide has been really, really important," said Cohn.
And now comes your turn to help.
On Sunday, the Brattleboro Rotary Club presents its fourth annual International Film and Food Festival, with proceeds benefiting KILI, a non-profit radio station broadcasting to Lakota people on three reservations. The station is a vital source of news and information, a vital lifeline for isolated people and an important advocate for cultural pride and traditions.
The festival showcases two feature movies by Native American filmmaker Chris Eyre, "Smoke Signals" from 1998 and "Skins" from 2002. Critics hailed both films as entertaining tales told with rare, unflinching honesty about Native American life.
"These two films are serious. They tell a good story. They depict the plight of people on the reservation, but he's got a certain comedy to it," said Cohn.
"Smoke Signals" screens at 4 p.m., at the New England Youth Theatre, 100 Flat St., and "Skins" shows at 6:30 p.m. In between the films, there will be a dinner featuring Native American fare at 5:30 p.m.
Chef Steve Reynolds is preparing such intriguing things at Grandma Connie's Buffalo Feast, Sioux Indian Pudding, Buffalo Stew, Blueberry Wojapi, New Native Fry Bread and other dishes from recipes provided by the Pine Ridge folks.
Tickets to the festival are $25 and are available at Vermont Artisan Designs and at the door.
Cohn said the Brattleboro Rotary Club has also gotten a grant to provide a calendar of events on the Reservation, something the people at Pine Ridge identified as a need.
Throughout Rotary's commitment to Pine Ridge, the emphasis will be on finding out what the people say they need and helping them get it.
"We don't have any preconceived notions of what we can do. What we are committed to do is helping," said Cohn.
Rotary does hope to put together exchange programs so local youth can visit Pine Ridge and get to know their peers there.
"You show people that you do care, and they can count on you, and the dialogue starts to open, and you can really open the doors to cross-cultural exchange," said Greenbaum.
The Brattleboro Rotary Club is also welcoming donations of old laptops to be reconditioned or rebuilt and sent to Pine Ridge. To donate a laptop, bring it to Sunday's festival or contact Marty Cohn at 802-221-4821.
For more information, visit www.brattlebororotaryclub.org.