Welcome Message

Welcome to "Words to Re-Member", the official blog of Re-Member.

Sunday, March 9, 2014


by Alex Hultgren, Re-Member Social Media Director

In 2014, we are introducing “Words to Re-Member” to our website.  These may include volunteers sharing their perspectives and experiences, interviews with Lakota about their lives on Pine Ridge, discussions with tribal and BIA leaders about Re-Member’s impact on the Rez, and thoughts from our staff on what it’s like to be onsite week after week as van-loads of volunteers come and go.  

This month, we’d like to share the story of a woman who had an extraordinary, unexpected week at Re-Member: Stacey Chippendale.  As she will elaborate below, Stacey came into the week with certain expectations, concerns and questions, and during the course of her stay at Re-Member she experienced a series of touching and unexpected joys – all of which changed her in ways she never saw coming.   Her story is one to which many of us who have spent a week on the Rez will be able to relate!

Thank you for Senior Week 2013
by Stacey Chippendale

When I tell people I spent my vacation volunteering on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation they always ask the same basic questions:  “What motivated you to go and what was it like?”

I try to explain how a Native American medicine man named Red Elk set my spiritual house in order in the summer of 2012. In a 2 hour radio interview he addressed my life time of questions and doubts about Christianity and religion perfectly.  For this I will be forever grateful.

I wanted to do something meaningful as a tribute to Red Elk.  He doesn’t live on a reservation and there was nothing I could do for him personally so I decided to try to find a volunteering opportunity with Native Americans.  In my search I came across Re-Member’s website and instantly knew that was what I was meant to do.

I have to confess that I was also searching for something.  I had become very disillusioned with my own culture.  We baby boomers have turned into an “all about me” populace.  The never ending focus on instant gratification, appearance and material things has led my generation down a path of inner emptiness and almost total isolation from nature.  I was very disillusioned with my own kind.  Among the Indians, I hoped to find, a people that still had a set of meaningful values and a close connection to nature.

What I found at Re-Member was something wonderful and totally unexpected.  You see it was my great fortune to go to Re-Member during Senior Week.  I had been scheduled to go in April but a nasty blizzard cancelled travel into and out of the reservation and so I rescheduled for the September Senior Week trip.  That week always has many regulars that make the trip together and most are part of large church groups.

As the name senior implies most volunteers were over the age of 60 and one regular was even 80 years old.  This was a well-seasoned crew who were highly experienced from years of volunteering at Re-Member.  In three days time they constructed over 20 beds, delivered and installed some and skirted a trailer complete with two decks.  In comparison the previous week’s participants had only constructed three beds.

Where else in America could you go on vacation and find a group of senior citizens, many with health problems, happily sleeping in dormitories filled with bund beds and living in summer camp like accommodations?  I’m sure for many, climbing up and down to those top bunk beds was a challenge in itself.  Yet every morning I was greeted by a roomful of smiles and they never once faded until we were all tucked into our beds.

Some of my fellow volunteers even managed to squeeze in delivering donations they had collected all year for reservation schools or unloading a truck full of bunk they had built with their churches hundreds of miles away.  Never taking a cruise or frequenting a timeshare, this was the way many of my fellow bunk mates chose to spend their golden years.  Some had been coming to Re-Member every year for the past 7 years or more.

Of all the people I have ever known throughout my life only one or two would have enjoyed this kind of vacation.  Going on long dusty van or bus rides down bumpy unpaved roads or using nature’s only outhouse while hiking the Badlands.  At lunch time contentedly munching on turkey, ham and cheese sandwiches casually made and eaten on a jobsite four days in a row.  Then after a long day of hard physical labor, fighting against a strong prairie wind to serve the locals a lovely outdoor dinner.  Finally, sitting quietly each evening and listening to a different native speaker whose words stir something deep within you.  Wearily you try to wrap your mind around who Pine Ridge is like it is.

Then there is Ted, Jerry, Bill, Bryan, Paula and the staff.  This team goes the extra mile each day to try to make a difference in the lives of the people on the reservation and the volunteers who come to Re-Member. Thanks to Paula, by the time I arrived, I already felt almost like family.  Her warm welcome and hug upon my arrival, cast away any doubt I had about making the trip alone.

I can’t imagine how hard it must be each week to face a new group of volunteers knowing most will be using power tools and equipment for the first time.  Jerry does in calmly and with a reassuring smile he makes only one safety request. “All I ask is that you go home at the end of the week with all of your fingers and toes.” Somehow he deals with every kind of personality and physical limitation and he makes sure everyone takes home the pride of using tools to build some bunk beds or outhouses each week.

Then there is Bill who was in charge of a bid trailer skirting job which included two decks with steps.  I quickly realized that it was a job that required concentration and precision.  Somehow he managed to keep a van full of volunteers feeling useful when only a few had the skills to really do what needed to be done.  Thanks to Bill nobody stood around or felt useless.  I’m guessing many of us were more of a hindrance than help and added extra time to his pressing task.  When the job wasn’t completed, but we had to leave for the community dinner, Bill stayed behind.  He had decided that he wasn’t going to leave that job unfinished even if that meant finishing and then loading up the tools and equipment in the dark. It was late that night when I saw him again and he wore a very contented look of accomplishment on his face.

I am not sure what to say about Ted.  The second I was there I watched Ted wade through ankle-deep mud “gumbo” in his tennis shoes to hook up a chain to try and extract our van from the mud. Even though the task seemed hopeless he kept pulling and pulling with his truck until he finally yanked us free.  After the mud bath and a busy day of work he went to the kitchen and fixed us a delicious dinner because the cook never showed up. That evening, as was his custom, he spent time with us after the speaker had finished.  He waited until we went to bed and without telling anyone drove five hours to pick up a volunteer’s prescription medicine that FedEx had failed to deliver.  The next morning she woke up to find her box by her bed and Ted having breakfast and getting ready for Wisdom of the Elders, all bright eyed and cheery.  By the end of the week I realized that if every non-profit director had Ted’s passion, drive and commitment there would be no problems left in the world.  If he had been the director of the American Cancer Society, cancer would have been cured long ago and if he ran Feed the Children there would be no hungry children left to feed. Thankfully for the people of Pine Ridge he had chosen Re-Member.

I left Re-Member with a wonderful and unexpected gift – a fierce new pride and respect for people of my own culture. I am sending this heart-felt thank you to all of the wonderful people I met during Re-Member’s Senior Week 2013.  You really “walk the walk” and showed me what it means to “be all the best you can be.” I will be forever changed because of all of you.  Thank you.

Thank you, Stacey, for your wonderful words and sharing your experiences and insights.  If anyone out there has a story from Pine Ridge you would like to share, please contact me at alex@re-member.org. And don't forget, you can always take the next step in support of Re-Member by either making a donation or signing up for a week on the Rez!

Mitakuye Oyasin