Alternative Spring Break on a Reservation in South Dakota

by Megan McPhilemy

It’s the start of summer vacation for many college students and graduating high school seniors.  And within a few weeks, all other teens will be on vacation too.  As you consider what you want / can do this summer, I hope you will consider doing some volunteer work.  I did over my spring break this April and it was both eye opening and fun!

The fourth poorest county in America isn’t exactly a hot-spot for high school and college students on vacation, but a few of my classmates and I went anyway. Our school, Emmanuel College, has a history of running  Alternative Spring Break (ASB) programs in Phoenix, AZ; Wheeling, WV; and New Orleans, LA, so students can donate some of their time and talents while participating in a unique learning experience. This year, I was one in a pioneer group that traveled to the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation in Eagle Butte, South Dakota.  Our group had 15 students and 3 staff leaders.

This trip to South Dakota changed my knowledge of Native Americans and the way I view “American” life.  My group worked for a week at the reservation’s teen and youth centers–Cheyenne River Youth Project (CRYP).  Before going, I had no idea what to expect. I associated Native Americans with the mainstream images I had grown up with–teepees, feathers, and moccasins—but I really didn’t know much about modern Native American life.

I was surprised to find that the children we met at the CRYP teen centers were just like kids from Boston in many ways–they loved to play basketball and ping pong, listen to Justin Bieber, and gripe about their teachers or annoying little siblings. The younger children at the youth center, too, were just like the kids I babysit at home: energetic, imaginative, and excited to play with the big kids. I was impressed with their resilience: despite the many hardships they face, many of the children we met displayed incredible strength and determination, with plans to go to college, start their own businesses, and help their people. We were also introduced to inspiring adults such as a Lakota woman who left the reservation to go to college, raised two sons by herself, and went on to earn her doctorate in psychology. She now works on the reservation to improve access to mental health resources. We also met with a Lakota man who is very invested in the preservation of Lakota language and culture and uses traditional tools and materials to make jewelry painted with images that represent Lakota myths, ideals, and spirituality.

But there were also many things that shocked me about the social and economic hardships of life in Eagle Butte. Problems such as drug and alcohol addiction, hunger, teen bullying, neglect, families separated by foster care, and low matriculation and graduation rates plague the area. Many of the children do not get enough of the nutrients they need because their families survive on the cheapest and often most-processed foods. The effects of poverty and isolation have an immense impact on children’s self-esteem, especially the teen girls who are particularly susceptible to self-doubt. For example, one of the teen girls we met could not look at her reflection in the mirror because she truly believed she was ugly.

The CRYP youth and teen centers we worked in were built to create a safe environment and better future for these children. The original CRYP began in a converted bar on Main Street in 1988. In 1999, the CRYP partnered with a non-profit organization and was able to relocate the youth center and open an expanded teen center. Formerly “The Main,” it was renamed the Cokata Wiconi Teen Center. Today, these centers have a handful of long-term volunteers, but they struggle to stay afloat, and rely on college volunteers for support.

During the week I spent with the kids, we planned arts and crafts activities, played basketball, danced, helped prepare meals, helped to organize a new library for the teen center, and became friends with the kids.  We also ran a “college night” for the teens, where we told them all about our school, college life, and how they can apply to college and receive financial aid. While we were met with some skepticism, most of the kids were excited about the prospect of going to college. We wrapped up the week by preparing decorations, food, and supplies for “Passion 4 Fashion,” a event for teen girls whereby they were pampered and supplied with a prom dress and accessories and then walked down a runway in their own fashion show. This event was designed to help the girls build confidence and prepare for prom season—a time that can incite stress and anxiety for girls. In a short time, we developed strong bonds with these teens and children, as well as with each other as a group dedicated to bettering the life of these children.

My view of my “American” life changed drastically because of my alternative spring break experience. Seeing that things that are so accessible to me–college, food, basic supplies, and emotional support–are often inaccessible to children on the reservation made me realize how lucky I am to have all of these things at my fingertips–especially college. While I have always valued my education, I took it for granted that college was readily available to me as a plausible next step after senior year in high school. As a result of my visit to the Lakota Reservation, I am now more appreciative of the experiences and opportunities I have had as a college student in Boston because I realize with new insights that access to this educational opportunity is not guaranteed for all people.

Even If you can’t travel across the country on vacation this summer, there are many ways to take some time to volunteer and have fun, learn about another culture or lifestyle, and help others! To see what volunteer opportunities there are in your area, you can visit sites like Volunteer Match ( or Do Something (


2 responses to “Alternative Spring Break on a Reservation in South Dakota

  1. Megan, your spring break sounds so fun! I’m excited about your volunteer ideas for summer.

  2. I would love an Internship

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