Backpacks and Smiles: A Report on the Fill-a-Backpack Drive

Backpacks and Smiles

Thank you to everyone who participated in the recent Fill A Backpack Drive run by the Lakota Pine Ridge Children’s Enrichment Project (LPRCEP). Over spring break, along with students from Colgate University, I had the honor of distributing your donations to children and Reservation schools. Once again, your collective efforts have made a huge impact.

Each visit to Pine Ridge I have felt a stronger pulse of positive energy and hope among the population. There are so many stories of proud and talented people who are working hard to bring about change for the Lakota, despite unimaginable hurdles and losses. This trip, I was able to reunite with one of my favorites, “Jana” (name changed for privacy purposes).

Jana in 2007

I first met Jana in 2007, on my first trip to the Pine Ridge Reservation. It was 30 degrees outside and Jana was wearing only a t-shirt and flip-flops, she did not own a coat or boots. We had a brief conversation and I gave her school supplies, books and a warm hug.

Working as a volunteer for Re-Member, an outreach group on the Reservation, later that day I visited Jana’s trailer to deliver a bunk bed, and discovered that she lived in comparably the worst conditions on the Reservation. The door to the trailer was secured to its frame by duct tape. Inside, family members stayed warm by the heat of a stove, and plastic sheets covered the openings where windows blown away by windstorms once hung.

Despite her surroundings, 4-year old Jana was bright, happy and radiated an infectious aura of joy. Jana embraced our contact and accepted our smiles as gifts, which she enthusiastically returned in kind. In the following years, Jana’s young mother died only months after giving birth to Jana’s youngest sibling, who is now 3 years old. Through the years, I have sent Jana and her siblings items donated to LPRCEP’s supply drives.

Jana in 2011

Over spring break in March of 2011, I reunited with Jana, who is 8 years old. Jana and one brother now live with an aunt and three cousins, their third residence in recent years. I brought along a large collection of gifts from LPRCEP.

Lying prominently on top of a huge box filled with backpacks, sneakers, toys and a host of tempting items was a doll, in a beautiful dress adorned with sparkling crystals. Jana, the intended beneficiary of the doll, stepped forward and removed the doll from the top of the collection, as if to claim it for her own. After admiring the doll in her arms for a brief moment, Jana quickly turned to her little cousin, placed the doll in her cousin’s arms and said “Here you go, this is for you — now you can play with this – aren’t you a lucky girl?” Her little cousin beamed.

As the rest of the items were distributed, Jana appeared more interested in giving items to others than claiming anything for herself. In fact, the entire collection of children accepted what was given to them, without complaint, without comparing one person’s gifts to another’s, and without attempting to assert ownership over something given to someone else.

Jana remains hopeful, generous and full of joy, a great testament to her young mother, who died too early to see the remarkable strength of her brave daughter. At age 8, Jana understands the message of the Lakota prayer Mitakuye Oyasin, (literally, “We Are All Related”), is teaching the tradition to her siblings, and is living it by example. Like her Lakota ancestors, Jana — who had so very little herself – not only unconditionally shared her gifts with those around her, but also demonstrated maturity and grace beyond her years.

Other Deliveries

Our friends at Re-Member drove us over 200 miles to spread good cheer to children and schools. We delivered donations to the American Horse School, Little Wound School, Loneman School, Rockyford School, and the Redshirt School.

LPRCEP representatives recently returned in May 2011 to participate in a pilot summer camp for Lakota children, in partnership with The National Indian Youth Leadership Project and Wings of America. We hope that this pilot program will lay the foundation for additional summer camp opportunities across the reservation in future years.


Recently, I have received recognition for spreading awareness and for helping Lakota children, a distinction with which I am not entirely comfortable. The true heroes are the Lakota people, who have maintained their culture, against all odds. I am an advocate for change; I cannot know what it is like to be Lakota, however, I can stand in solidarity with the Lakota people, listen to them, and learn from them.

The other heroes are those who continue to support the efforts of LPRCEP. The local New York effort was greatly assisted by publicity in the Scarsdale Inquirer, by the Scarsdale Congregational Church, and by an anonymous corporate donor that generously paid to ship the 1,000 pounds donated by local residents to Pine Ridge by Federal Express ground delivery! The Tuckahoe-Eastchester Girl Scouts and a 4-H Club made the drive one of their spring service projects. Facebook Fans from all over the world loaded backpacks, Internet shopped and sent almost an equal amount directly to the Reservation, which Team Colgate distributed with the help of our friends at Re-Member. There was so much sent ahead that we were able to share distribution activities with students from Columbia University who also devoted their spring breaks to the Lakota.

Wopila-tanka (Lakota for “Many Thanks”) for your incredible generosity.


Maggie Dunne, SHS ‘09
Lakota Pine Ridge Children’s Enrichment Project, Ltd.
Project PEACE (Pine ridgE Aid for ChildrEn), Colgate University

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