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In all the chaos and hurry of trying to get everything cleaned up on my desk and in my inbox, I was stopped in my tracks a couple of days ago.  I was reminded of why I do the “work” I do.

I received a call from a Jane Doe, woman on Pine Ridge Reservation.  Okay, that’s nothing new for me.  I talk to a lot of folks there.  Jane is a woman I have actually visited and with whom I have spoken quite a few times.  She is a pleasant, soft-spoken woman who is  a wheelchair bound paraplegic, the result of being rearended in an auto accident by a drunk driver.

You would think Jane would be worried about herself and the fact that she lives in a small, non-ADA compliant apartment.  But several months ago, she told me the story of her two nieces.

Both her nieces are adults.  Both of them are mentally handicapped.  The two women had lived with and been cared for by their parents until the parents passed away.  At that time, one of their adult siblings was given guardianship over the two women.  The guardian decided to put the two women into a home of some sort, many miles away from the reservation and from all that was familiar to them.  No one from their immediate family visited them and, in fact, the guardian moved away to the East Coast and left them alone.

Jane Doe was the only one who visited her nieces, in spite of the fact that her car was constantly breaking down.  The women cried when she left and called her crying when she was at home because they were so lonely.

Jane, though disabled herself, was so concerned about her nieces that she went to the tribal court and sought guardianship of the two women.  They have been allowed to come to visit her — sleeping on the floor of her living room on top of sleeping bags and quilts.

Jane recently received guardianship!  However, they cannot come to stay with her permanently until she has a place for them to sleep that is not the floor. 

The living room is the only place in the apartment that they can stay.  Truly, Jane and her nieces need a proper place to live — one where a wheelchair will fit through the doorways.  But that is not likely to occur any time soon.

Jane would like to have her nieces home by the holidays, she told me when she called to ask if I could help her find a pull-out sofa bed or bunk beds for her nieces.  It’s so hard to say no to someone as generous and kind-hearted as Jane.  But it isn’t what we usually do, since a sofa bed, the best option, can be quite expensive.  I, personally, would hate to ask 38 and 40 year old women to be climbing into bunk beds, however.

We have actually located a sofa bed for $1000 that can be delivered to their home.  I’m not sure if that included tax — probably not, right?  But we don’t have a spare $1000 at this time.

I’m hoping that there will be a donor (or donors) who thinks that these 2 mentally handicapped women deserve to live with their aunt, who is so loving and giving in spite of her own needs.

If you know anyone who would like to help, direct them to ONE Spirit at http://nativeprogress.org to make the donation.

I, personally, am going to keep Jane Doe in my mind as I prepare for the holidays of giving thanks and giving gifts.  She is willing to give of what little she has out of love for her family.  She is a true inspiration to me!

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I have been pretty “quiet” lately thanks to the work volume all of the wonderful folks who have been stepping up to become sponsors for children and elders on Pine Ridge Reservation since the 20/20 episode aired.  I literally have not had time to write.

That is about to change!

This evening I called an elder to give her a sponsor for the 5 year old granddaughter she cares for.  The longer we spoke, the more I knew I had to share this story.  I’m sharing it because I am so far past angry I can’t keep this to myself.  It is difficult to type when all you can see is red, but I will give it my best effort.

[scrape … scrape … scrape … sorry, the soapbox makes a bit of noise]

I asked Grandmother how her granddaughter, who is in first grade, was doing.  She told me that the girl was happy but having some difficulty in school.  She was told the child may be dyslexic.  That will mean a struggle for her.

I told her I had a sponsor for the girl and she was very happy with the news.  We continued to talk as I confirmed the address information.  It was then that I began to steam.

This little girl’s family had moved away and left Grandmother with a trailer to live in with the girl.  If you could hear me, I would tell you to close your eyes and picture it as I describe it.  Instead I will try to paint you the picture with my words on this page.

The trailer is in a group of trailers.  It is very old.  Grandmother worries that the roof will come off in the wind that comes with storms – and in South Dakota that is often.  It seems that the wind is always blowing on Pine Ridge Rez.

The trailer has no running water or sewer connection.  They were using a nearby outdoor faucet for water, carting several jugs a day.  Some of the neighboring men “rigged” up the sewer pipe so they could use the toilet, flushing by pouring some of the water they had carried into the tank of the toilet.  HOWEVER . . . there was some kind of water line break in the area and the tribal water department had to shut off the water.  Yes, the outdoor faucet that they were using to obtain water is now dry!  The tribe has not made the repair that would allow the faucet to be turned back on.  Now they have to go to someone else’s home to obtain the water they need and carry it home.

Following the dotted line . . . or broken water line, let’s see the additional results of the lack of water and sewer connections. 

The most striking consequence is that Grandmother cannot get a propane tank without the water and sewer connected.  Is that important?  It depends on your perspective, I guess.  Do you think eating is important?  Do you think it’s important to have heat in the South Dakota winters?  Personally I think they are both things none of us would want to go without.  So how does Grandmother cook?  She uses a hot plate or electric skillet.  How does she keep herself and her young granddaughter warm in the poorly insulated trailer?  She uses several small electric space heaters.  The pair sleep in the living room.  Grandmother has hung a blanket in the hall doorway to keep as much of the heat as possible in their small living area.

Picture two old-fashioned thermometers, the kind with the bulb of mercury on the bottom.  One of the thermometers is measuring the temperature outside the trailer.  The second thermometer is measuring the electric bill.  As the mercury in the first thermometer drops (actually plummets at night) during the winter, the second thermometer’s mercury is exploding through the top of the stem like a volcanic eruption!  By spring, the electric bill will be too high to pay – causing the electric to be cut off and a $250 reconnect fee to be added to the next bill.  This is what will happen this winter as Grandmother tries to feed and warm herself and her granddaughter.

Are you beginning to get upset yet?  No?!  Okay then, it’s time for the clincher.

Do you remember that flimsy roof I referred to above?  That roof has another serious problem – it leaks badly!  When it rains, the water comes in through the light fixtures.  It comes down the walls.  Grandmother’s mattress in the bedroom can’t be used – it’s wet.  Even if they had running water, the bathroom would be unusable – the flooring and carpet is wet.  Besides, after her granddaughter got a small electrical shock when turning on the bathroom light to brush her teeth, Grandmother decided it was better not to use the bathroom at all.  So all bathing and tooth brushing and laundry is done in the kitchen.

I asked Grandmother whether she had sought any assistance to get the problems resolved.  She told me that she had.  She told the folks at housing.  A man came out and made one small repair.  He never returned, in spite of her calls.  Her district representative to the tribal council has tried to help her out but he has had as much success as she has had.

[okay, breathe . . . in . . . in . . . in very slowly, then out . . . out . . . out slowly, control the breath to control the rising anger . . . again . . . okay]

 

Is this how elders of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the wise people of the Lakota, should be living?  Is this how they should be treated when they ask for help?

We ALL know the OST has no money, though why they don’t is harder to figure out.  But the fact is they have people.  They need to be training more people to do the very repairs that elders need and can no longer do for themselves.  The tribe needs to invest in their own vocational school to train plumbers, electricians, construction workers, carpenters, etc.  These trained workers could be licensed.  They could form companies and do work for an income.  They could also, in exchange for their education, give back to their communities by performing the repairs for elders for free, as a sign of the respect due to the elders.  The tribe needs to work at making it easier to do business on the reservation — especially for registered tribal members.

Lakota culture and values state that elders are to be respected; that women and children are sacred.  But it is only lip service that the tribe gives.  They spend more time with politics and nepotism guiding their decisions than the truth of their ancestors.

So I am left with the question of how I can help this particular Grandmother.  But I am also left with the bigger question.  There are many more grandmothers on Pine Ridge Reservation.  Many do not have the energy or ability to lobby constantly for the repairs they need.  I am trying to use the steam I am still feeling about this to brainstorm ideas on what would help.

If you have any ideas, I would love to hear them.  It doesn’t matter whether they are feasible or not at this point.  I just want to know that you think this situation is abominable and how you think it could be changed.

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And when I say short, you know I mean short!

Ever since the 20/20 Program aired last Friday night, I have been swamped with work.  In the 48 hours after the show, I received more sponsors from my coordinator than I typically receive in a month!  It is an example of “Be careful what you ask for, you just might get it.”  It is a wonderful problem to have but with my fibromyalgia I have to be careful.  If I let myself get stressed by all the work, I’ll have a flare-up and then I definitely won’t be able to get the work done.  I am trying to balance it out but it isn’t easy because I care so much about the work I do.

I knew, when this program was first discussed over a year ago, that it would bring about the kind of interest that it has generated.  I knew that, if someone with a large enough following would bring the conditions to the public so they could SEE for themselves what it was like, the people in this country would respond.  I tried the networks and Oprah and everyone I could think of to DO SOMETHING.  Gratefully, ABC News came through.  Why, I even wrote an open letter to Bill Gates on this blog.

So now I am working night and day to contact sponsors.  Then I have to contact people on the reservation.  Actually, that can be the hard part.  Phone numbers on the reservation change more often than the weather — or so it sometimes seems.

Also, as I begin to assign more sponsors, people on the rez are telling me about neighbors who could use one.  Perhaps one day we will have all of the people on Pine Ridge matched with a sponsor.

If you don’t see a new post for a few days, do not think I have abandoned my crusade or forgotten to write.  I’m just up to my eyeballs in sponsors at the moment!

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I received a call from a grandmother on Pine Ridge Rez the other day.  She was calling because she wanted to know if we could help her daughter, who had only days to pay her electric or it would be shut off.  There are 2 adults and 5 teens that live in the home.

I think Gramma was a bit embarrassed because they have always been able to manage before.  Her daughter had gone to the tribe to ask for assistance but was told there would be no money available for this until November.  I unfortunately had to tell her that ONE Spirit, the group I work with in their sponsorship program, did not include utilities in our program because of the vast amount of money it would take to do that.  We shared my vision of a wind farm on the plains there that the tribe could build.  The tribe could then supply free electricity to all residents and probably still have electricity left over to sell back to the electric company.  What a relief it would be to residents of Pine Ridge to have free electricity!  Paying over $200 per month when you have no source of income or live on Social Security is a huge burden.  It would be a blessing for the tribe to be able to accomplish this for their people as well, a place where they could begin to rebuild the hope and confidence of their people as well.

She told me about her health, which has improved since her back pain was finally properly diagnosed and treated.  She told me that her daughter, for whom she had requested the help, had been diagnosed with Graves disease in 1996.  That surprised me, because her daughter is full of drive and works harder than anyone I know to help others on the rez.

Gramma also told me about the windows on her trailer (which I have visited).  Apparently one of the severe thunderstorms this past summer blew out all the windows on the rear of her trailer.  The weather, including rain, now comes in her windows.  She said that she had managed to get a board across her bedroom window; however it doesn’t cover the whole window, so rain still comes in.  I asked if she had talked to the tribe about getting help to get them fixed.  She said that, since the trailer was not “tribal housing”, the tribe has no funds to help with things like that.  She noted that she had also contacted a non-profit group that is known for doing work like that all summer.  The group, Re-Member, hosts volunteer groups all summer.  Their last group was last week.  They would not be able to help until spring!  So Gramma will have to go without windows until next spring unless she “finds the money” to hire a private contractor to do the work.  I’m afraid it will be a cold winter.  Unless Santa decides his sleigh has the room and brings windows.

I told Gramma that although ONE Spirit did not have the resources to run a program for utilities, I would see what I could do among my contacts.  Gratefully, we were able to come through for this young woman.

The daughter called me crying when her mother told her I had found a way for it to be done.  It shouldn’t have surprised me, but I am still a bit surprised when strong people cry.  The tears, you know, were tears of joy and relief, not self-pity and woe.  That attitude is something that never surprises me about Lakota women — they never show self-pity and they are always trying to help a neighbor/daughter/sister/cousin instead of themselves.

Lakota women are so inspirational!

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ABC NEWS Has Come Through For Pine Ridge

Over a year ago, I was contacted by a researcher/producer for ABC News.  She had found one of my blog entries (in which I was chastising ABC for not paying attention to the disasters in the west, especially on the reservations).  She told me they were working on a Diane Sawyer prime time special in her “A Hidden America” series.  The prior one had been on life in Appalachia.  This time they were planning to profile Pine Ridge Reservation.

Those of you who have been reading my blog will know that there is not much that fires up my hopefully righteous passion more than talking about life on Pine Ridge Reservation.  So talk we did, for almost an hour.  And we emailed – resources that they might find helpful.

I had heard that Diane Sawyer was out on the rez this past summer when I was there (no, we didn’t happen to cross paths traveling the approximately 2 million acres on the rez.  But I did here that she went up to KILI Radio one of the days I was there.  Try to keep that quiet when you’re talking to DJ’s.

I am giving you a link to the promo for the show.  Please, if you have ever enjoyed or been moved by anything I have written, I implore you to watch the 20/20 program on Friday at 10 PM.  See with your own eyes the good and the bad of Pine Ridge.  You may not find it possible but this place does exist.  I have been there and I suspect they will not tell you the worst story nor show you the poorest homes.  But it will still be worse than you expect.  After all, the living conditions on Pine Ridge rival those in Haiti and the life expectancy on Pine Ridge rivals that of Burundi.

I work for an organization that works to support self-sufficiency – not an easy thing to have on Pine Ridge.  Many of us work to keep the dam from breaking by trying to improve the life of one person at a time.  The big picture can be truly overwhelming.

If you can’t watch the show when it airs, record it or have a friend record it for you.

I will be honest.  I prayed for someone with greater reach than mine to focus attention on the needs of Pine Ridge.  I did not know (or care) who it would be.  I am grateful to ABC News because I know that if more people see the conditions, they will be moved to respond.  I believe in the American people and I know in my heart that things can improve.  I do not have the answers but I know it can be done.

Thank YOU for helping them to raise awareness.  You can do that by sharing this blog post with everyone you know.

Oh yes, here’s the link to the promo:  http://abcnews.go.com/2020/video/hidden-america-children-plains-14708439#.TpOhj9LOE2E.facebook

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I spoke with a young mother last night to try to assist her.  She had moved from Oklahoma to Pine Ridge, SD to help care for her mother after her mom had some surgery.  Her mom has other medical conditions in addition to the one that required surgery, had been life-flighted off the reservation previously and certainly needed the extra help.  Her mom, however, has gone back to work early because of the dire need for income.

I said this was a young mother who moved back to Pine Ridge.  She did not come alone.  She brought her 4 children with her.  Her children range in age from 11 to 18.

It has been a culture shock moving from the Cherokee Nation, where her children are enrolled members, to the Lakota Nation, to which she has transferred her enrollment when she moved back there.

In Oklahoma, she was enrolled in a college program majoring in Criminal Justice.  Back in Pine Ridge, she is enrolled at the Oglala Lakota College, which does not have that major.  So she will have to choose something else to complete her degree.

When she and the children moved back, they were given her grandfather’s trailer to live in.  However, because neither he nor other family had a job, the electricity was shut off for lack of payment.  They were not the only ones, of course, so candles and generators in the neighborhood were the norm.  But generators take fuel, too, so they are run intermittently, as hot water is needed – not solely for TV or lights.  Apparently while she was at her mother’s home, the children had candle lit so they could see.  A neighbor had turned on a generator and did have the TV on while the water was heating.  So her children we to the neighbor’s house to watch TV . . . forgetting the candle.  Unfortunately, unattended candles can be a fire hazard and this one was no exception.  The trailer caught fire and burned down, taking all their possessions as well.  Even worse, they had some historic documents and items in the trailer which have now been lost to both the family and the tribe.  She is so saddened by that loss.

I explained to this mom that the family had been referred to us and explained both the sponsorship and OKINI programs.  I told her I would put them on both, with an emphasis on the OKINI due to their urgent needs.  She began to cry.  She apologized for the tears and said that it has been very difficult to get help through the tribe.  It seems that the right hand does not know what the left hand is doing, that no one communicates with anyone else and that there is “no money left” in any program.

She said that would never occur with the Cherokee Nation.  They are organized and it is easy to navigate their systems.  They are honoring and trying to maintain their culture while at the same time fitting in with the current day.  Moving back to Pine Ridge, from one Indian nation to another, has been a Native American culture shock!

She and her four children went to the tribe for assistance with housing after the trailer burned.  They were told that they qualified for assistance but it would take some time.  This young woman, who is strong and articulate, was not about to let her children be homeless.  They have moved into her great-grandmother’s “old house” that was built sometime around the 1900’s.  It is a house, but it is small!  It contains a kitchen and one other room.  The only furniture they have is a full-sized bed.  Since there are 5 family members, the 2 older children are going at night to sleep on their grandmother’s couch.  They have no appliances, no table or chairs, no food storage (no food for that matter) and very little clothing.  They do have someone who is willing to build another room onto the place if they can materials from they tribe (they are not holding their breath on that).

After we talked about all the hardships she and her children have been enduring, she proceeded to tell me the story of her pre-teen nephew.  Her brother, who still lives in Oklahoma, is the boy’s biological dad.  However, when the mother was pregnant with the boy, she left the biological dad and moved to Pine Ridge to live with another man.  She listed that man as the father on the boy’s birth certificate.  After a short time, she left that man . . . and left the boy with his non-biological father as well.

Apparently this boy has been abused since he was quite small — physically, mentally, emotionally (being told his biological father was dead after he found out about him) and perhaps sexually.  The boy finally called the police to try to find safety.  After a court hearing, they placed him back with the abuser.  The young woman fears for her nephew’s life and wants to help the boy.  But again she is frustrated by the lack of organization and lack of urgency she finds in the Oglala Sioux Tribe.  I have connected her to my Lakota friend, who has had a lot of experience with the juvenile system on the rez, as you know if you read my accounts on this blog.  I will try to give her other connections as I can.

This young woman is passionate, articulate, intelligent and driven to make a difference for her people.  I hope and pray that she will find a way to do that.

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Okay, technically Labor Day is tomorrow.  But it is Labor Day weekend, the final big holiday of the “summer season.”  And what am I doing?  Laboring!!  I guess I can at least be grateful it isn’t the kind of labor that comes with a baby at the end – been there, done that.  But yes, I am hard at work for the past 2 days.  I will be tomorrow as well.

What am I doing to take up all this time?  As usual, I am calling the rez.  Specifically, I am calling as many of the 44 households who were to receive food orders last weekend in the 2 areas I serve to determine whether the food was delivered or not, whether it was in good condition when it arrived and if there were any other problems with the delivery.

I had tried to meet with the food delivery volunteers for my areas when I was out visiting my Lakota friends a couple of weeks ago.  We were never able to connect (phone tag, even on the rez!).

You would think this would be an easy task.  You would be wrong.

I have not be able to reach 25% of the people on the list because their phones have been disconnected or are “no longer a working number.”  Do 25% of the folks you try to call lose their phone numbers because they can’t pay their bills?  I doubt it.

Another 25% are not reachable for a variety of reasons:  no one is home; they have never set up the voicemail box; the box is full; they don’t have a voice mail box; they are “not available” which can be code for “they have no signal where they are” or “they’ve turned off the phone to save power.”

There is a small percent, perhaps 10%, in which someone answers the phone but the person I ask for is not there.  So I try to check anyway, “Do you know if the food was delivered last Sunday?”  Nope, no idea.  It always puzzles me.  You are obviously at home enough to answer the phone for someone else but you don’t know if they got food.  (Pausing to shrug my shoulders – I know how loose home life can be on Pine Ridge).

Now we come to the rest, the calls where I actually reach the person I am trying to call.  It should be a simple task, a few quick questions.

If you’ve been reading my posts for a while, you will know there is no such thing as a “simple task” when it comes to the rez.  There are the people who want to know when they will get a sponsor.  Answer:  I don’t know.  The economy is bad, there a more natural disasters than we can keep up with and more people are torn among many places to be philanthropic.

Next question:  Can you give my sponsor a message?  Answer:  Absolutely!  A related question:  Do you know why I haven’t heard from my sponsor in “x” number of days, weeks, months?  Answer:  No, but I will try to find out.

Most people do not respond to the East Coast direct manner of completing this task.  They want to chat a bit, tell you about their lives and what’s been happening around the rez.  It takes time.  It’s probably something of a blessing in disguise that I can’t reach everyone.  If I did, with the average call lasting at least 20 minutes, I would have been on the phone for at least 15 hours!  Talk about labor!!

There are occasionally calls that take longer than the 20 minute average.  Like the call I made yesterday when I connected with a grandmother who had not received her food delivery.  Not a good thing, in and of itself.  But she proceeded to tell me about her 5 year old grandson who is just starting kindergarten.  He had no shoes that fit.  He needed school clothes.

She told me she had just been diagnosed with diabetes on top of her problems with asthma.  She thinks (and I suspect she is right) that the black mold in her home is responsible for the asthma problems.

She went on to tell me more about the house.  The heating vents are not in the holes where the heat comes out.  When the housing authority folks came over to fix them, the “fix” they proposed was to duct tape them in.  Okay.  She has so much trouble heating the home in the winter that she uses her oven for heat.

She moved on to her finances.  She is on Social Security and receives about $600 per month.  She must pay for everything out of that money.  She gets no support except for food stamps for her grandson.  That means she must pay for electricity, heat, clothing, cleaning supplies, phone, cable and the inevitable food and personal hygiene supplies not covered by the food stamps.  She told me her electric bill is around $250 per month and the cable is $50 per month.  She confided that the bundle – cable, internet and phone – was $113 per month, way more than she could afford.

With half her income used up by just 2 items, you can see how a food delivery that did not appear would be a disaster.  She is very worried.

I have one more day to complete this task.  Then I will send a report to the persons who direct the food program with the information I have gleaned.

But there will be no rest from my labors.  There is always something to be done for the rez.

 

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