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Sioux YMCA Experience

Earlier this month, seven year-round YMCA of the Rockies employees from Estes Park Center and Snow Mountain Ranch embarked on a service trip at the Sioux YMCA. Below is a summary of their experience, written by Polly Gallagher, International Staff & Volunteer Coordinator for Snow Mountain Ranch.


Seven year-round employees departed Estes Park bright and ready to serve early Sunday morning on the 4th of June.  Bright-eyed and bushy tailed, they were ready to take the world by storm – one perhaps ever so reluctantly after an emotionally wrenching experience just six weeks prior at the Sioux YMCA. An initial glitch with the vehicle fueling did not dampen the spirits.  Anxiously, they hit the open road.

Over the course of the drive, we began to pull together as a team.  Backgrounds, expectations and interests were shared.  As we pulled into the Sioux YMCA, our energy slightly faltered as there was no one to greet us and no knowledge of where to go. What to do? Fortunately, from previous trip, our group leader knew the location of Andy’s (Sioux YMCA CEO) private residence.  A knock on the door, and we were directed, on our way again, to Camp Marrowbone about 65 miles further east where Andy was leading a work project day replacing a roof. We did a quick stop at the Dairy Queen in Eagle Butte where Mona, a long time Sioux YMCA board member, recognized a Sioux YMCA volunteer shirt obtained on a previous trip.  She stopped to chat with two Sioux Initiative volunteers (see below for details) and gave us a renewed sense of purpose and excitement after our long drive.

We arrived at Camp Marrowbone around 8 pm. This desolate camp on the banks of Lake Oahe is three miles off of the highway, along a dirt road.  Two overfull dumpsters marked the entrance.  No visible building blocked the horizon.  Was this it? We opened the cattle gate and slowly followed the tire ruts a mile over rolling hills, gradually dropping to another cattle gate.  Two outhouses, a contemporary outdoor shower, five buildings, six shacks, two pavilions, and a tumble of canoes met our eyes.  Questioning looks passed between us.  Andy, Sioux YMCA CEO, greeted us with a huge smile, hugs, and handshakes as he was wrapping up a long day of building walls and roofing one of the buildings (office and staff bunkhouse).  We were informed that Cait, Camp Marrowbone Director, was driving the eight hours to an International airport to collect two International camp staff, and Assistant Director Ryan had taken the early arriving camp staff out to dinner.  We settled ourselves in and enjoyed the gentle breeze (that lasted our entire stay) wafting in from the water, keeping us cool and nearly mosquito free.  As we headed to bed, a black Suburban pulled up and out popped Isaac, SMR Trek (gap year program) alum, calling out our names, clearly pleased to see us.  We all exchanged greetings and found a cabin (not shack!) to drop our heads.  The work group had kindly swept out the cabins and hung rickety screen doors in preparation for our arrival.

In the morning, we gradually filtered towards the kitchen (building 2) for coffee and were welcomed by camp staff to join in for breakfast.  They were just getting started and a few volunteers from Massachusetts were also there from the day before.  We interacted, playing a guess who game with much laughter. They then left for camp training, and we looked at each other wondering what to do.  A ½ mile walk up the hill for cell service got us in contact with Andy at the Sioux YMCA, and we were given a list of things to start while we waited for Cait to return.  We were off and running.

Each morning we joined in with the camp staff for morning activity, breakfast, and Words of Wisdom Time which helped us set the tone for the day.  Ryan kindly stated, “Any time you choose to join us for activities is a bonus for us.”  Our day generally started around 6:30 am. We worked until lunch at 12, picnicked and toured, then returned to work around 3 pm each day until dinner around 6 or 6:30pm.  We had some confusion as to our role and intention but seemed to get a groove by Wednesday.  There was initially some frustration of us looking around and seeing so much to do with the camp staff off playing, but we reminded ourselves that we were there to serve and help them prepare, and they were there to provide opportunity and a vision of the future for the children.  It was important for us to remember that we were there to provide service based on their needs, not on the needs we felt they had.

With our emphasis on building rather than engagement with the children the Sioux YMCA primarily serves, the emotional connection was nowhere near as great as that of the TREK trip.  We also engaged with people who see a future and light for the tribe rather than a constant reminder of the socio-economic needs and rampant social risks the children experience each day.  Through discussion during our observation/touring, we did become aware of the differences between life on the reservation and life off the reservation.  Through opportunities of discussion with Sioux YMCA board members, we were able to experience the joy of the vision in addition to the never-ending momentous tasks the Sioux YMCA employees strive to complete in order to bring the vision to life.  Through our mixing with other volunteer groups and camp staff, we were able to see how this “Little Engine that Could” YMCA obtains support and builds networks with Ys all over the world, again to bring the fruition of the board and Andy’s vision to life.

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