The Running Strong for American Indian Youth® Oyate Ta Kola Ku (Friend of All Nations) Community Center formally opened its doors to the residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation on February 9, 2023, at an open house where the public was invited to “Come see what will be happening at the new Community Center and sign up for classes!”
The opening of the 21,000-square-foot Community Center has been monumental in so many ways for the thousands of children, youth, families, and elders who call the reservation home.
At the open house, attendees could register for various classes, including gardening, sewing, cooking, guitar, and even beekeeping, and check out the state-of-the-art gymnasium and rec room.
Since that first day, the Oyate Ta Kola Ku Community Center has served thousands of meals, provided hundreds of cultural classes for youth, conducted summer camps, hosted health fairs, distributed thousands of food boxes, given away hundreds of coats and boots, and even more holiday gifts, and perhaps most importantly, served as a hub for a community in desperate need of a gathering place of their own.
Here’s a glimpse of the past year:
February: Community Valentine’s Dance, Open Gym for Teens, and the first day of Gardening classes.
Just one day after opening its doors to the community, Rose Fraser, director of the Oyate Teca Project, who oversees operations at the community center, informed the community that the center would be hosting what would become the first of many activities and events: a Valentine’s Dance. Then, just a few days later, Rose shared on the Oyate Teca Project’s Facebook page: “We will be starting open gym this week at the new Oyate Ta Kola Ku Community Center in Kyle, SD. Today is the first day!”
By the middle of February, classes of all types began. They included: 1. Gardening classes the Oyate Teca Project has conducted for years for families who want help establishing home gardens. 2. Guitar lessons for beginners and advanced players alike, with an introduction to chords and riffs and the opportunity to practice various country, rock, and blues songs, culminating in a community recital. 3. Sewing and regalia-making lessons in the sewing classroom.
April: Community Easter Egg Hunt, getting kids ready for Prom, Community Emergency Response Training, and even a fitness challenge!
Community gatherings are at the core of a native community’s social fabric. The Oyate Teca’s Annual Easter Egg Hunt and Pizza Party was attended by several hundred, with each participant taking home a toy (for the kids) and a food box (for the families). Proms are part of the ‘new’ social fabric, so with prom season coming up, OTKK had beautiful dresses for the girls and even tuxedos for rent for the boys, just $10, including a fitting from volunteers.
As part of its mission to protect the health and safety of the community, the community center was the site of CERT (Community Emergency Response Team) training in April to help residents prepare to help themselves and others in the event of a catastrophic disaster.
In addition, to encourage a healthy lifestyle, OTKK staff initiated a free 100-mile walking challenge, starting in April and ending on July 4, giving participants more than two months to log 100 miles at the community center with prizes for each milestone reached.
The Oyate Teca Project has long been a source of food boxes to help keep Pine Ridge children and families from going hungry. With the new large freezers at the community center, fresh food and meat distribution expanded, and food distribution doubled this month over a year ago.
May: A focus on Culture and Tradition, and just one of many days distributing food boxes.
To promote Lakota culture and traditions, OTKK continued with its culture and regalia-making classes to include lessons in creating youth concho belts and ribbon skirts. The staff couldn’t keep up with the demand; these classes have become a monthly staple at the Center.
On one day alone in May, nearly 200 food boxes provided by Running Strong, in collaboration with Feeding South Dakota, were distributed. Each box contained potatoes, onions, fries, bread, hamburger, chicken, pork roast, kinds of pasta, canned vegetables, cereal, milk, and more. These boxes were just a small part of the over 6,000 food boxes distributed at the Center this year.
Summer Months: Gardens were sprouting, and school was out, so the kids came in.
The Medicine Root gardening program has grown over the years, from providing small garden crops to the community and lessons for aspiring family gardeners to producing 17 tons of produce in the summer of 2023. This year saw the building of two new hoop tunnels and the purchase of a new propagation unit, which allowed gardeners to start the seedlings and the machine to automate watering, lighting, and hardening off the plants.
This summer, more than in prior years, the youth of Pine Ridge had a place to go and have days filled with summer activities. From participating in fishing derbies to basketball and volleyball clinics to ‘open gym’ each day to gardening classes for the youngest of aspiring gardeners, hundreds of children came to the Center to spend their days. The Community Center is indeed a safe, fun place to be.
The Fourth of July kicked off with a parade, mud volleyball, a car show, a horseshoe tournament, tug-o-war, boat races, Bingo, a youth corn hole tournament, live music, food, and, of course, fireworks at dusk. Then, on July 3, the center hosted the Dream Like Billy 5K Run & Walk, with the first 100 participants receiving a #722 Billy Mills autographed bib (the number he wore when he won the gold medal in the 10K run at the 1964 Tokyo Olympics) and a t-shirt. The top 50 finishers even received a medal!
September: The Beginning of the School Year
It was Back-to-school time in Pine Ridge, and the Center hosted a Back-to-School backpack/school supplies distribution for K-12 students. For the older students, the center hosted a career fair in November in collaboration with the Oglala Lakota College Vocational Education Department and the South Dakota Native Homeownership Coalition. All this while conducting classes, open gym, food box distributions, and even a Halloween party.
Holiday Season: The holiday season was special, indeed.
It was a time to see all the great things we can do for our community when we come together to make them happen.
Hundreds of children and their families had many holiday wishes come true on one special night in December. At our Christmas community party, hundreds of families came to celebrate together. There were toys for all ages, hundreds of warm coats, blankets, shoes, and more for the winter. Each family also left with a food box!
In the last days of the year, our staff and volunteers supported the Big Foot Memorial Ride riders on their 300-mile journey to Wounded Knee. Running Strong staff and volunteers have supported the riders on their last days of the journey for many years with much-needed meals.
This year, we also provided coats, gloves, hats, and face coverings. Also, for those who wanted to, after days in the mud, snow, and frigid cold, riders could rest and shower at our Center. Dinner at the Community Center, fixed by volunteers, followed by breakfast and lunch the next day, ensured the riders were fed and prepared for their final two days of riding.
Looking to 2024 and the 2nd year of the Oyate Ta Kola Ku Community Center
If all of this was possible in one year, we can only begin to imagine what the second year of having the Center’s doors open will bring!
Can you imagine… an outdoor activity space that includes basketball and volleyball courts, a horseshoe pit, and a playground for the youth?
Can you imagine expanding cultural arts classes to include a leather sewing machine, a quilting machine, and fabric and art supplies to keep our almost daily arts classes stocked?
Can you imagine…promoting youth development with a paid internship program for summer youth program staff, gardening program assistants, farmers market helpers, and staff for the center’s Blue Bird Café? At each, the teens and young adults will not only earn money but also learn skills that might inspire them to want to put to good use in the future.
Can you imagine…expanding on the success of the gardening program with polycarbonate panels to cover all four of the community garden high tunnels and installing walking paths to the gardens, greenhouses, and plant nurseries? And with the gardening program kicking off this month and gearing up for a new growing season, Rose and her garden staff will need family incentives for the program participants as well as some warehouse conveyor rollers because of the weight of the produce. Last, and certainly not least, Rose is working to find a wholesaler for the plant nursery to purchase things like seedling trays at lower costs. “It would be great to have a reputable seed display so we can sell seeds along with the seedlings,” she says, adding that she is hopeful of finding a company that will sell flowers and trees to the community center at cost “or even donate to the first garden nursery on the Pine Ridge reservation.”