What began as a pilot program five years ago, our Running Strong for American Indian Youth® plan to connect a few households on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation to the main service water line which runs through southernwest South Dakota has grown to become among our largest service projects on the reservation.
Since that humble start, our Mni Wiconi (Water is Life) program has connected some 150 families to the water line, bringing them all the safe, treated water they need for drinking, cooking, bathing and washing.
As each year has passed, thanks to the supporters of Running Strong, the program has expanded, transforming the lives of hundreds of children, parents and elders who today no longer have to walk hundreds of yards, or even drive several miles in each direction, to fetch the precious gallons of water for all their daily needs.
This year, according to our water coordinator on the reservation, Ken Lone Elk (Oglala Lakota), our goal is to complete more than 50 water line connection projects at an average cost of $7,500 per family.
Ken notes that while every family, many who have been waiting for years for water on the Oglala Sioux Tribe’s or Indian Health Services’ waiting lists, is grateful to the supporters of Running Strong for giving them “life,” for the most part what they are able to receive is a weather-proofed outdoor hydrant — as the majority of recipients lack a septic system.
For Ken, it’s bittersweet.
“It is hard to leave a family who now have a good water supply after we connect them to the Mni Winconi water line, but they are still not able to use their bathrooms and kitchen sinks due to a bad septic system, or no septic system at all, because of the poverty levels of the families we assist,” he says. Despite this reality, water brings families hope and a new outlook on life for themselves and their children, some of whom have grown up or lived their entire lives despite not living with running water.
In addition to all our supporters from across the country, we also want to express our sincere gratitude to the Boulder Rotary Club in Colorado which last year joined with us in our mission to connect up to 300 additional households on Pine Ridge without access to running water at their homes in next few years.
We are well on our way to meeting that goal and will rejoice together when that day comes.
For us at Running Strong, that day will mark the culmination of our very first efforts on the reservation more than 30 years ago when Billy Mills and our co-founder Gene Krizek met with the Oglala Lakota tribal chief Joe American Horse and asked him what was it that his people needed most and received his one-word response: “Water.”