Interfaith youth group making connections, building trust

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WINDHAM COUNTY — Jonah Petrie loves to tell the story of a young Lakota boy named Trevor he met back in 2014 in La Plant, South Dakota, on the first Brattleboro Area Interfaith Youth trip to work on the Cheyenne River Reservation. Jonah was himself 15 and the boy was just 10. "What are you going to be when you grow up" was his question to which the boy shrugged his shoulders and said, "you know, live, maybe." That answer, Jonah knew reflected the likelihood of suicide for all young people on the reservation. Native children suffer exposure to violence at rates higher than any other racial group in the U.S., with suicide the leading cause of death for Native girls between the ages of 10 and 14 according to the CDC in 2015. Nationally, Native students have the highest dropout rate and chronic absenteeism rates of any other group.

Over the years, the Brattleboro area's connection with the Reservation has grown. Joellen Tarallo, executive director of the Center for Health and Learning in Brattleboro, has partnered with the host organization, Simply Smiles, to help develop a suicide prevention program for the school and community in La Plant. The Rev Lise Sparrow has ongoing contact with some of the older women in La Plant who have begun a quilting collaborative to increase their income. Rob Szpila is forging stronger connections with the Native people in Pine Ridge where the Rotary has supported the radio station and small industries for years. But the primary impact has been on the children and teens of the La Plant community and on the hearts and minds of the Brattleboro youth who make the trip.

Before the arrival of the Simply Smiles organization 10 years ago to La Plant, the town was one of the poorest and most isolated in the United States. The winters are harsh and the land arid so the options for employment have been few. The nearest grocery store or gas station are almost an hour away and an interstate highway roars though the middle of the sparse homes. Since 2009 the organization, with help each year from Brattleboro locals and other volunteer groups from around the nation, have build a horseshoe pit and playground, renovated a community center and constructed homes for local families. This year the group's efforts will focus on the children and the painting of a mural. Some 65 children are picked up each day from the surrounding hills to come and play basketball and Frisbee, to bake cupcakes and do crafts, to sing and read books, and the group of 20 from Brattleboro will be there from July 6 to 13 to make that happen. Two other groups, one from Connecticut and the other from a Cherokee high school in Nebraska, will share the effort the week they are there.

The La Plant children recognize those who have come before and relationships and trust have deepened among the children and increasingly among adults. Tarallo said she looks forward to seeing her 85-year-old friend Myra, grandmother to many of the children. Szpila will be sure the Frisbee golf course created a few years back is still in good shape, and Jonah and Trevor will play a lot of basketball. Others in the group will learn from local artists how to build a teepee, how to shoot a bow and arrow, how to make chokecherry jam and how to weave a dreamcatcher. Jonah has since traveled twice more to La Plant and this year he will be the youth leader for the group of 13 teens and seven other adults who will make the trip. On his last trip in 2017, he and Trevor played lots of basketball and he learned Trevor was thinking about attending college.

The 2019 South Dakota travelers include: Margaret Holland, Lily Quintero, Sam Freitas-Eagan Joellen Tarallo, Stennie Nelson, Terry Sylvester and Rev. Lise Sparrow. from Guilford Community Church; Gary and Sara Graff from All Souls Unitarian Universalist, Rob and Grace Szpila from St Michael's Catholic Church, Dylan and Jeremiah Burows from the Second Congregational Church of Londonderry, Jonah Petrie from the Brattleboro Area Jewish Community, and Alex Schriver, Magnus von Krusenstiern, Kathryn Wocell, Padma Mendelsund, Sophie Mikijaniec, Lily Buren and Conall Halvey.

Each traveler pays for their travel and basic fee but the group has fundraised to be able to pay for other travel costs and for the materials needed to run the camp for a week. They will spend two days in Pine Ridge visiting Wounded Knee and projects supported by Rotary before the trip, and will travel and camp at Standing Rock after to learn about the Dakota pipeline and ongoing environmental concerns. They return July 15. You can follow the travelers on the Guilford Community Church facebook page and they have a Go Fund Me account at https://www.gofundme.com/volunteer-work-with-lakota-youth-2019 . Checks can be written to GCC with SD in the memo line. The address would be BAIYG c/o Guilford Community Church, 38 Church Drive, Guilford, VT 05301. For more information call Lise Sparrow at 257-2776.

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