My “Coast to Coast” OC Journey
August 29, 2015

By Shelby Thibodeaux

OC’s outreach territory covers most of 8 Great Plains states…it’s like a country within a country!  I had the privilege of traveling from the south end to the northern edge of the Ogallala Aquifer on a 1,900 mile trip early this month with an OC group. This journey was filled with work, storytelling, meeting new people, and adventure. Our main purpose was to support and bolster OC interns on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, and to network with other people along the way.

First, we traveled through the Oklahoma Panhandle up through Kansas, stopping to view some of OC Board Member Simone Elder’s work in Wichita County.

Leoti, KS Community Garden with Simone
Leoti, KS Community Garden with Simone

We spent the night and next morning in Atwood, KS, learning a great deal from OC Adviser Chris Sramek and OC Board Member Dawn Hampton. I loved seeing the community development achievements in Atwood that Ogallala Commons has assisted with during the past 10 years.

Touring some of the sites in Atwood with Chris and his new dog
Touring some of the sites in Atwood with Chris and his new dog

Next on our northward route was a meeting with Russ Finch near Alliance, Nebraska. We witnessed his geothermal greenhouse and business, Greenhouse in the Snow. I was in awe of the variety of fruits and vegetables he was producing, but also with their quality.

Russ Finch Greenhouse in the Snow Alliance, NB
Russ Finch Greenhouse in the Snow Alliance, NB

The next day we drove up from Chadron, Nebraska to see Crazy Horse Monument and Mount Rushmore (near Custer, SD), and I got to see my first wild American Bison in Wind Cave National Park. I was able to witness history in a way that I had never experienced before, and the landscapes of the Black Hills of South Dakota were breathtaking.

Crazy Horse Monument

Francine and Tasina gave a second Harvesting Ceremony at District meeting in Kyle. SD
Francine and Tasina gave a second Harvesting Ceremony at District meeting in Kyle, SD

On the third morning, we traveled to the Tribal Council meeting up on the Pine Ridge Reservation where two OC interns, Francine Richards and Tasina Lone Elk conducted their harvesting ceremony. These two girls are an inspiration to youth in their communities, and I am glad that the Oglala Sioux Tribal leaders were able to learn about their accomplishments. Next, we visited the Emergency Youth Shelter in Pine Ridge, SD that Pauletta Red Willow started and manages for the reservation. After lunch, the interns took us on a driving tour of the reservation, and our first stop was the site of the Wounded Knee Massacre. Without Francine and Tasina as guides, we wouldn’t have understood the huge significance of the cemetery. I am very grateful for the wisdom they passed on to us. We also visited radio station KILI, which broadcasts from the highest point on the reservation, and is an essential source of community news and information. We finished the day at the Oyate Teca Youth Center and its community gardens in Kyle, SD, where we helped with some weeding, and spent time with Intern Supervisor Steve Hernandez.

The next day we met Steve at the Rosebud Reservation and talked with the South Dakota State University Extension personnel in Mission, SD, regarding their outreach and education programs, and then toured Sinte Gleska University community gardens, guided by tribal member and manager Carmelita Sully.  Carmelita provides education and nutritious food to her Native community, and OC hopes to collaborate with her to create some internships in 2016.

Carmalita's garden at the university in Mission, SD
Carmalita’s garden at the university in Mission, SD

On the sixth day of our trip, we started back south to Texas, stopping in Larned, KS to stay with OC Board Member Tom Giessel and his wife, Sheryl. That evening, we enjoyed a wonderful meal prepared by OC Apprentice Beto Rincon, who made the journey, along with OC intern Britt Snipes, OC Board Member Dr. Paul Martin, and OC Director Darryl Birkenfeld. The trip finished on the seventh day when we returned the rental van in Amarillo, TX, and our fellow travelers went their separate ways.

Tom Giessel join us in a visit with OC Intern Supervisor Sydnee Blanton in Larned, KS
Tom Giessel join us in a visit with OC Intern Supervisor Sydnee Blanton in Larned, KS

Now that I am home from this epic journey, I am reflecting on what I learned and how the journey has changed me. I love my work with Ogallala Commons even more, because I got to witness firsthand how OC interns are making positive change in their communities.