Why I volunteer: An essay by Kelly McConnaughey

Spring 2012 Red Cloud Country

Volunteering at Red Cloud Indian School is a story of extremes. There are indeed sad days, when I am so overwhelmed by students’ prayers for their fragmented families, sick grandparents or dead puppies. And then there are the other days, when I get to watch the same students joyfully ride steers or proudly lip-synch to entire Justin Bieber songs while break dancing—and not missing a lyric.

I have culturally blundered… and taken the matriarch grandmother’s seat at a family reunion.

I have made close enough friendships to have been asked to DJ at a wedding reception.

I have woken up on miserable, freezing cold mornings to navigate a packed school bus through terrifying icy roads, and have risen from a night of camping to a stunningly beautiful buffalo wandering just outside my tent.

Yes, being a volunteer on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation is an overwhelming mix of amazing experiences and near-defeating failures. Yet I find myself humbled and grateful for every single bit of it.

I was drawn to volunteer here under the vague assumption that I had something to offer and might make a difference. Instead, I have learned more than I have taught. I have been given more than I have served. My students are precious people who impact me daily, and share more with me than I could possibly offer them as a volunteer.

I want to tell you a story about a fourth grader I have been blessed to teach. One day, I was invited to his house for some archery target practice (it is quickly becoming a popular sport here at Red Cloud Elementary and at Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary in Porcupine). His mom shot her handcrafted traditional bow with the two of us for a bit.

Later that evening, my student brought out his telescope and looked at the near-full moon with his father. That night, this little fourth grader made his “famous” smoothies for everyone for dessert—complete with a secret ingredient I wasn’t allowed to watch him add to the mix of yogurt and berries and milk. The smoothies now sitting in our stomachs, I gave my young student the well-deserved compliments on the “best smoothie in the world.” He leaned over and conspiratorially whispered, “You want to know the secret ingredient?” My only possible answer was, “Yes.” So he leaned in further and said, in complete seriousness, “Love.”

Some people look at the reservation I am grateful to call home and see only poverty or alcoholism, diabetes or violence. I look at my students and see generosity and joy. I meet their families and see strength, support and resilience. I look at this community and see a far richer culture than my own and a spirituality that teaches me how to love God more.

My students may or may not be awesome scholars, but they are awesome people. That little fourth grader that I visit prays his own way, according to tradition, and means it every time. In a year and half of teaching him, I have never seen him stressed or upset or angry. I have never seen him hurt anyone. And someday I will hear the stories about how he may or may not have grown up to be the next great NBA basketball star or astronaut—but either way he will have grown up to be a community leader and good man.

These students have a future—on the reservation or off, whichever they decide. As their teacher, no matter how many silly mistakes I make, I get to be along for the ride… and it is worth every sad, cold or hard day. I get to look through the telescope, or drink a “love” smoothie or maybe even teach them a little about God. These students have much going for them, foremost of which is simply who they are as people. They may have struggles, but they definitely have futures.

Being a volunteer is getting to witness those futures and being blessed everyday by the goodness of who they are and what they are becoming.

Kelly McConnaughey is a second year volunteer from Alabama who teaches religion to kindergarten through fourth grade at Red Cloud Elementary School. She majored in philosophy and studio art at Boston College. Her sister Shannon also volunteers on the reservation, teaching anatomy and biology at Red Cloud High School.