by Jim Kent
Having a positive role model is often seen as one of the major factors young people have in making positive choices in life and finding success. Some Lakota teenagers on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation are working to make a difference in the lives of students at the Red Cloud Indian School.
The reservation covers more than two million acres in southwestern South Dakota. Statistics on the school’s website indicate Pine Ridge faces high unemployment and high rates of disease. Young people are at risk for substance use and attempting suicide. Yet, resiliency is found across communities on the Oglala Lakota Nation, which include grassroots efforts to encourage young people.
Alejandro Rama loves basketball and is a mentor with Thunder Valley Community Development Corporation’s mentorship program. When Rama was growing up he would frequently turn to his coach for answers about the game, school, or whatever was on his mind. At 16, Rama now understands how important it is to have a role model when you are young.
“I always want to be there for these little kids…’cause I know that they have problems at home,” said Rama. “Running the PE class, something positive for them to get away from the situations at home.”
Those kids are the students Rama mentors in grades K through 8. Being there for the boys and girls is not only good for them, but Rama finds a positive in it for himself when he is having his own doubts and difficult days.
“When I like start to struggle and just don’t really want to try as hard with school or sports or everything, I just remember I have kids looking up to me. And I still need to go hard for them,” said Rama.
Kenith Franks is the on-site director for the mentorship program, which is now two-years-old.
“We’re almost like a tier system of mentors almost where you have middle schoolers that the elementary kids are looking up to,” said Franks. “And then the high school kids that work for us kind of instill that whole, I guess, paradigm–that whole viewpoint of mentors all throughout the high school and all throughout the school here at Red Cloud.”
Franks believes the key to the program succeeding is to find others who are as passionate about mentoring as he is. Ensuring the mentorship does not just focus on sports is also important to him. There is a cultural component to the program, from elders teaching students about their traditions to talks about women’s rights. What Franks would like all the students to learn is what helped him succeed when he moved off the reservation to attend college, is that in the end the most important part of who they are is their cultural identity.
State of Change is a project in collaboration with High Country News and the Solutions Journalism Network. Ten New Mexico news organizations are examining the challenge of building resilient rural communities, and are looking at what some communities are doing to address a number of issues they face. National Native News is taking a look at how one group is building economic resiliency on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota through the grassroots community development corporation Thunder Valley. We’re also exploring what other rural communities across New Mexico, and the United States may learn from the organization’s programs.