Meaningful springbreak

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Deer Medicine Rock, near Lame Deer, Montana

Deer Medicine Rock, near Lame Deer, Mont

Students choose community service for spring break Student Chae Ri Park, Korea Brandi Bongers, junior from Faribault, with children at the reservation. Deer Medicine Rock, near Lame Deer, Montana 

Build your resume. Serve your community. Learn conflict resolution skills. Problem solve. Practice team building. Learn leadership skills.

All are good reasons for students to sign up for one of the trips the University’s Volunteer Connection office offers as an alternative to the beach trips many choose for their annual one-week spring semester break. But there’s an even better reason, according to Tim Sahli, who was one of two student leaders for this year’s volunteer service trip to the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in Lame Deer, Mont.

"Instead of sitting on a beach drinking a Corona," said the junior Spanish education major from Sartell, "I wanted to do something that was meaningful." That was Sahli’s motivation in 2007, when he took his first trip to Lame Deer to work with young people. The experience was so worthwhile, in fact, that this year he applied to be one of two student leaders for the trip – the only way to be certain he could participate a second time.

Alternative spring break trips are so popular with St. Cloud State students that there’s a competitive application process and first-timers are typically given priority, according to Jim Knutson-Kolodzne, staff trip advisor for the last two years and director of the American Indian Center on campus. "They want as many students as possible to get this opportunity," Sahli said of the Volunteer Connection interest in bringing a new group of students to Lame Deer every year. This year 10 students, including Sahli, had that opportunity.

The group’s assignment was straightforward: participate in activities such as crafts, games and sports with children in grades one to six and join high school students for open gym nights, all at the community center. "We’re not going out there to save anyone or change their lives," Sahli said before the trip. "We’re just going to help the community."

Sahli and his classmates came away with more than team building, problem solving and leadership skills. "These are some pretty awesome kids," Sahli said of the youngsters he’s met during two trips. "They’re really loving, they’re thankful for what they have, they appreciate what comes into their lives."

Each time the visitors returned to the community center, Sahli said, "You could see the kids’ faces light up they really tried to get to know us, they asked if they could stay later, they wanted us to hang out with them."

The children also taught the college students the difference giving of one’s time and attention can make: "Most of the kids don’t have all the opportunities someone in St. Cloud would have – so when we do what we think is simple, it means a lot to them," Sahli said. "You realize that even small things can be a big deal."

Sahli said he and his classmates are in complete agreement on what they didn’t like about the week: "The hardest part was seeing the injustice" in the lack of opportunities available, the financial, political and institutional limitations put on children on the reservation, Sahli explained for the group. "That really bummed us out." That’s part of the learning experience, said Knutson-Kolodzne. "It’s a culture shock," a shock that left the St. Cloud State students with a better understanding of the meaning of "white privilege" – and a desire to continue to explore diversity and confront inequity.

- Marge Proell

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