Another Successful Drive: Donations for the Rosebud Reservation
The story of the annual trip to the Rosebud Indian Reservation in South Dakota goes back long before Mercer got involved. The lead organizer, Donna Bowling, told the story of how it started: “Well, about 26 years ago there was an 11-year-old girl from St. Joe’s Children’s Home that heard there were American Indians starving and freezing, and she wouldn’t let it go until we investigated.” When she wasn’t volunteering at St. Joe’s, Donna was working at Plehn’s Bakery, and the little girl asked Donna to “Please send your doughnuts to them.”
The little girl had learned about the conditions in South Dakota by attending a Native American powwow at the Bullitt County Fairgrounds, just outside Louisville, KY. A Cherokee woman named Sharon sold craftwork at the powwow, sending the proceeds to help the elderly at Rosebud and Pine Ridge Reservations. The Rosebud Reservation is the home of the Sicangu Lakota Oyate, or Burnt Thigh People. Sharon talked openly about the hardships of reservation life as well as Native American culture. The summer after that powwow, a St, Joe’s house parent took 2 foster kids on a road trip to see the Rosebud Reservation for themselves. At the next St. Joe’s Picnic, they told Donna, “You’ve got to go, you’ve got to go! You’ve got to see for yourself.”
The next summer marked Donna’s first trip out to Rosebud and their first donation drive for the Rosebud Reservation, 24 years ago, with Donna renting a U-Haul truck. The donation drives quickly got bigger, from one year to the next. “We went from that 15’ truck the first year, to a 26’ truck, then the following year, two 26’ trucks. Then we needed another one so added another 15’ truck. So, I was spending $5,000 a year out of my pocket, trying to raise money without my husband knowing about it,” Donna said, laughing about the last part.
Upgrading to Dry Van Trailers
Of course, running a caravan of U-Haul trucks requires a lot of fuel and multiple drivers. Providing food for drivers became another expense, and the drive kept getting bigger.
It didn’t take many years to outgrow the U-Haul caravans, but booking a semi can be intimidating for a person unfamiliar with the industry. “My first attempt, I had to go down a gravel road in the middle of nowhere, to line up a truck and driver. I had my mother drive me because I was so nervous,” Donna laughed. “It was very scary.” Donna’s daughter, Emily, eventually took over managing the annual donations, and she has dealt with a whole series of trucking companies. She noticed how some of the tailers arrived dirty with foul odors. Rainy conditions sometimes made it difficult to unload on a tight schedule.
Contacts on the Reservation
Donna and Emily’s primary contact at the Rosebud Reservation is Marian One Star, who distributes donations among the reservation’s 23,000 residents. Marian’s daughter, Jessie, works as a pharmaceutical tech. Any donated medical supplies are marked with a star and set aside for the hospital or nursing home. The 2022 load included hundreds of adult Depends, potty chairs, canes, and walkers. After the truck arrives at Rosebud and gets unloaded by hand, everything is picked up within the next eight hours.
Families on the reservation tend to live in mobile homes owned by the US Department of Housing and Urban Development. Donna described them as 5-bedroom homes with “very small rooms with a small kitchen, small dining area and a living room. 25-30 people live in one house.” Between the cost of rent and propane, multiple families move in together, especially during winter, and so many of the neighboring homes may be boarded up.
Annual donations often include furniture and appliances that are hard to find in the community, like bedding, mattresses, dishes, microwaves, and toaster ovens. Coffee pots and towels are especially popular. Donna and Emily have moved away from sending food with donations, although some canned goods were sent in the past. It’s too hard to predict the number of days and temperatures during transit, risking spoilage. Instead, Donna has set up alternatives, like a small monthly shipment of coffee for Marian to include with care packages for the elderly.
Mercer’s Supporting Role
Mercer got involved a few years back, with an owner operator volunteering their truck and time to help move donations to the Rosebud Reservation. Mercer Transportation covers the cost of fuel and provides a trailer, generally dropping it off for loading a few days ahead of pickup. Mercer owner operator, Roger Hawkins, has volunteered to haul the donations for the past two years, and his service has been very much appreciated, both by the donation organizers and the rest of the Mercer team.
As Roger described the two-day drive, “a lot of it is thru 2-lane roads running through the middle of nowhere South Dakota. It is beautiful country! It is very pretty.” Roger has been with Mercer for five years. He got excited about the Rosebud program when Emily Weller, his Mercer coordinator, mentioned it in passing. Roger’s drop-off location at Rosebud is Marian One Star’s back yard. Two young men unload the packed trailer and Roger helps with what he can. “I’m an old, overweight truck driver so I help carry some stuff, just not the super heavy stuff,” Roger said with a sense of humor. “I think last year when we unloaded, we were rocking like 96 degrees. But even with the heat, they had that trailer emptied somewhere between 3 ½ – 4 hours.”
After working with a range of smaller trucking companies, both Donna and Emily have been very impressed by Mercer, Roger Hawkins (the driver), and the trucks/trailers. Donna described how Mercer has “been more accommodating that anyone that we’ve had the pleasure to work with. They’ve provided us beautiful, clean trucks. Like, these look brand new! And Roger has been great! Just talking with him…his flexibility and being aware that things might not go exactly as planned. He’s been wonderful.”
The Road Ahead
The annual collection drive typically starts the week after Memorial Weekend. As Emily explained, “We figure it’s a good time because there are people doing their spring cleaning, they purge items, we like to go and get them.” In the early years, raising money for U-Hauls and other transportation, they hosted fundraiser powwows at Our Lady of Lourdes and at Tom Sawyer Park. But now with volunteer drivers and Mercer’s contribution, organizers can focus on collecting useful supplies instead of stressing about funding.
This year’s donation collection took place from June 1st to June 4th. Roger picked up the trailer and headed out west to Rosebud on June 6th. The delivery to Rosebud Reservation took place on June 8th.
Although this project has been active for more than two decades, many Americans are still unaware of the impoverished conditions on many reservations. “There are a lot of people here in Louisville involved in a lot of wonderful things in third world countries. But it’s important for them to also know that at one point, the poorest community in America was Pine Ridge Reservation,” Emily said. “And it’s right here in the US, in our own backyard.” Taking over her mother’s project, Emily is very motivated to keep raising awareness.
Gratitude All Around
From the many, many volunteers to the wide variety of donated items, Donna said, “This whole mission… has pulled forth so many amazing, small miracles. Mercer was the biggest miracle of all.” The generosity of a volunteer driver certainly makes a big difference in transporting all the donated supplies. Emily emphasized, “We are very, very appreciative of Mercer and Roger… It really gives us pep in our step and restores faith in people when you know that there are all these people doing such good things. You all take care of your own and we come from a family business as well, Plehn’s Bakery, so we appreciate that.” Bringing the story full circle, Emily said how, “That little 11-year-old’s wish did come true…along with all the wonderful donations sent every summer to the Rosebud Reservation, the American Indians on the reservation have had many of Donna’s donuts.”
Thank you very much to Roger Hawkins and everyone else who has been involved with transporting donations out to the Rosebud Reservation. Roger generously donated his time and the use of his equipment, and he made a very positive impression on the organizers. These kinds of projects really make it exciting to be a part of the Mercer team.