Indian reservation

Sacred Heart University students volunteer at a Native American reservation

Ohen one thinks of the Native American reservations of Connecticut, the wealth fueled by the casinos of the Mashantucket Pequot and Mohegan tribes offer compelling examples of commercial success. But the situation is surprisingly different on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation in La Plant, South Dakota, where poverty and unemployment levels are among the highest in the country.

A group of SHU nursing and occupational therapy students and faculty spent time in the classroom at the Tiospaye Topa School on the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation. Photo courtesy of Simply Smiles

“Poverty is worse than in most Third World countries,” said Jody Bortone, associate dean of the College of Health Professions at Sacred Heart University (SHU) and associate professor of occupational therapy, who has observed how “generations of abuse, genocide and trauma” have scarred a geographically and economically isolated population.

Once a year for the past five years, SHU nursing and occupational therapy students have spent a week on the reserve as part of a program coordinated with Simply Smiles, a Bridgeport-based nonprofit organization. Students work at a school and clinic on the reservation and at a tribal hospital located in Eagle Butte.

“The mission of the university is a commitment to serve the human community, especially the poor,” added Bortone, who piloted this program with Linda Strong, associate professor and director of community partnerships. “It’s very important for students to engage with a variety of people.”

One of the most striking aspects of the Cheyenne River Sioux Tribe Reservation, at least from a Fairfield County perspective, is the vastness of the land coupled with the relative scarcity of people living there.

“There’s prairie grass as far as the eye can see,” said Bryan Nurnberger, Founder and President of Simply Smiles. “The reservation is about the size of Connecticut, but while Connecticut has 3.7 million people, the reservation has 9,000. And it’s the poorest place in the country.

Bortone added that the reservation’s remoteness contributes to the health problems plaguing its residents.

“Eagle Butte Hospital is 36 miles away,” she explained. “Although it doesn’t seem like much, there are no gas stations in the town we are going to. And Eagle Butte is not a full service hospital – you would either go to Pierre, which is one and a half hours away, or Rapid City, which is four hours away. If there is an emergency call, you have at least half an hour to wait before help arrives.

During the last SHU-Simply Smiles trip to the reserve in October, occupational therapy students worked with teachers and students, observing the treatment of children with disabilities while providing teachers with updates on lesson planning and recreation. students. The nursing students volunteered at local walk-in clinics and saw first-hand the medical and mental health issues prevalent on the reservation.

“There are four local clinics that provide medical care,” Nurnberger said, adding that nursing students focus on the reservation’s most serious health issues, including diabetes and nutritional deficiencies.

And although SHU students were invited to the reservation, their spare rooms were a far cry from Fairfield County housing.

“Our dwellings are extremely primitive,” recalls Bortone. “We had unheated barracks, latrines and no showers. And in October, it’s not hot. But the students who chose to go there tend to be very resilient and flexible, and they’ve responded very positively.