“We have Running Strong in the house!” exclaimed the host at the start of the KILI Radio program on June 7.
Ken Lone Elk and his son Dave Lone Elk, the Running Strong Field Coordinator on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, were the featured guests on the station which dubs itself as “The voice of the Lakota Nation.”
KILI Radio is the prime, if not only, way of getting the news out on the reservation providing information “that is sorely needed. Information about health, education and our culture that would not be found any other place.”
The station, which started broadcasting in 1983, was the first American Indian-owned radio station in the United States.
Ken and Dave were invited to address their fellow Oglala Sioux Tribe members about the “Historical Development of Christian Relief Services to Running Strong for American Indian Youth® and What it is Today.” (Christian Relief Service was founded in 1985 and Running Strong was co-founded in 1986 as an affiliate of Christian Relief Services by U.S. Air Force Col. Gene Krizek (Ret.) and Olympic gold medalist Billy Mills who grew up on the reservation.)
The broadcast was the first of several slated for the rest of the year on topics including “Feeding Our Takoja” (Youth), “Our Mni Wiconi” (Water is Life): What it Means to Us,” “How Running Strong helps the districts, prepping for the winter months, and more.”
Ken kicked off the program speaking about how he first got involved with Running Strong more than 30 years ago when he was working to help low-income Pine Ridge residents with weatherizing their homes.
One day in 1986, he was working on a house in the Slim Buttes region of the reservation when he noticed a group of people building a log house nearby.
As a skilled carpenter himself, Ken went over to watch the workers putting the building up.
“That’s how I got involved with Running Strong/Christian Relief Services,” he told the listeners.
That fall, a tour bus pulled up to a house Ken was working on when “a little old white gentleman” got out and started trying to put a star quilt on a wall, all the while Ken was working to finish the roof.
A few weeks later, Ken received a call from a Pine Ridge resident affiliated with Running Strong who gave him a phone number to call.
Ken placed the call to Gene – “It was my first contact with my dear old pal, Gene Krizek. We met and from there it went.”
Ken said they met again about six months later when Gene came to Pine Ridge to meet with the tribal chairman, Joe American Horse, who also happened to be the father of his wife, Noreen.
“Gene asked Joe what his people needed,” and the chairman “a man of few words” responded with a single word “water.”
And that’s how the longstanding partnership between Running Strong and the Oglala Sioux Tribe began.
With the understanding of “Mni Wiconi” (Water is Life) Gene and Ken spearheaded the task of constructing as many water wells as possible – up to 20 a year, which was no easy feat with an average cost per well of up to $12,000.
And together, with “our Lakota legend – our hero” Billy Mills “our kola” (a male friend who is closer to you than a brother), “from there a lot of things started.”
Running Strong: The Only Nonprofit on Pine Ridge Managed by Lakota
Ken noted that Gene’s son, Paul (currently Running Strong general counsel and a member of the Virginia House of Delegates) was involved in a lot of projects in the early years of Running Strong’s involvement on the reservation.
Today, as Ken pointed out to listeners, Running Strong is “the only nonprofit managed by Lakota” working on the reservation.
“We (he and Dave) are the ones who make the recommendations and proposals for certain projects,” he said.
But he also stresses that the two of them, along with Ken’s daughter Karen as office manager in the Running Strong field office “Tipi Waste,” could not accomplish all they do without the strong partnership they have with the managers of the nine districts on the reservation.
Through the joint effort between Ken and Dave and the district service managers the most needy people on the reservation are targeted to receive assistance from Running Strong.
“They know their families,” said Ken, particularly those in need of running water to their homes.
What We Do on Pine Ridge
Dave outlined his responsibilities as Field Coordinator for Running Strong on Pine Ridge which includes ensuring prompt delivery of the in-kind items such as frozen and nonperishable food boxes, winter coats and accessories, shoes and boots, school supplies, blankets, dental kits, and more, to the families on the reservation.
Over the years, first as a volunteer helping out his dad, to today with the roles switched, Dave has hundreds of both heartbreaking and heartwarming tales to tell.
On the radio program, Dave chose to tell the story of a barefoot little girl, likely no more than 5 years old, who came to Tipi Waste with her grandmother to a shoe distribution event in the hopes of getting a brand-new pair.
But as she made her way over the gravel driveway, a lump appeared in Dave’s throat with the knowledge that he only had children’s and adult sizes as they had never requested toddler-size shoes in the past.
Dave painfully had to inform the girl and her grandmother that he didn’t have any shoes her size to give her and he’ll never forgot how she simply accepted his answer and walked away.
“That little girl was super strong,” he told his listeners.
And Dave was determined never to let that happen again, informing the shoe distributors to be sure to include shoes for the tiniest feet as well in all future shipments.
Dave explained that he realizes the importance of not only providing families with food boxes, but making sure they contain food they like to eat, always asking “What did you think?”
Over the years, he has also learned not to base the contents of the boxes on his own personal taste.
When he was a young boy, his dad offered him some sardines and needless to say he was not a fan and no sardine has crossed his lips since.
“Sardines are not for me,” he said.
So one day when he received a shipment of food boxes containing tins of sardines, he called the distributor and told him not to include sardines in future shipments.
However, when he began receiving questions – particularly from elders – wondering why there were no sardines in the boxes, he came to the realization that some people actually do like sardines, and they were put back on the list of items to include in the food boxes.
Running Strong Heat Match: Ensuring Thousands Stay Warm During the Winter
One the busiest times of the year for Dave is right after the Christmas season.
Although he is busy in November and December ensuring families get holiday turkeys for Thanksgiving and Christmas, and Pine Ridge kids get nice presents from Santa Christmas morning, perhaps his most hectic time to year begins the first full week in January after New Year’s Day.
From then until around mid-March, Running Strong operates our Heat Match program matching dollar-for-dollar up to $100 giving families the opportunity to raise the $200 necessary to have a propane truck come to their home and fill their tank. The program also allows families on electric heat to use it to help pay their winter utility bills as well.
As a husband and a father of two young children, Dave knows firsthand the struggles families go through when their monthly bill to stay warm during a frigid South Dakota winter can reach $350. And he understands that, just like himself, that for the sake of the children he is going to keep them warm.
To the listeners of the program that morning, Dave also had to stipulate that it’s a “heat match” program that lasts for about two months to prevent people from possibility freezing to death, not a “utility assistance” program for helping people pay their bills year-round.
Running Strong: Giving All We Can To As Many Possible and Always Asking What More Can We Do?
Both Dave and Ken noted how much they count on KILI Radio to get the word out about programs and upcoming in-kind distributions.
In fact, Dave took the opportunity to give residents a heads up that there will be a distribution of diapers, laundry detergent and SmileStrong dental kits telling them “to be on the lookout for a public service announcement with the date and time.”
Dave also explained that while he would like nothing else but to give “something to everyone,” that’s simply not possible.
Because of that when he does an in-kind distribution, it’s first come, first served. “I never hold anything back,” he said.
Ken said he taught Dave from a young age that importance of the job as Field Coordinator for Running Strong in the knowledge that one day he would have to step back and spend more time at home with his wife.
“It’s something that I want them to keep doing,” he said of Dave and Karen.
He also implored listeners not to blame the district staff when they run out of items at distributions, and to remember that what is available should go to those most in need.
Returning to the issue of water, Ken explained that Running Strong quit drilling wells as the groundwater contained toxic chemicals including uranium, arsenic and lead and “I didn’t want to get my relatives sick.”
Today, Ken is working with the Indian Health Service to connect families to the main water service line which runs through the reservation. In addition, Running Strong is constructing septic systems for households with indoor plumbing.
At the conclusion of the program Dave and Ken encouraged Pine Ridge residents to stop by Tipi Waste (on Gooseneck Road in the Porcupine District not far from Sharps Corner) to have a cup of coffee.
For those needing some type of assistance, Ken says “We try to help whenever we can.”
As for Dave, one question is never far from his mind – “What can we do to help our people?”