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Winonans help Pine Ridge (08/27/2014)
By Amelia Wedemeyer

     Photo provided by Saint Mary’s Parish

. This July Father Jim Berning of Saint Mary’s Parish and Winona area community members went on a mission trip to Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, S.D.

For Father Jim Berning of Saint Mary’s Parish in Winona, the Pope Francis quote — “Meet one another doing good” — is the perfect way to begin to explain the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation mission trip that he conducts each summer with a group of local Winona residents. “Everybody needs to go experience [what it is] to help and serve and be with the poor and learn their culture, another culture, and to make a difference in this life,” he said of why he keeps returning to Pine Ridge, year after year.

Pine Ridge sits on 3,469 square miles of land in the southwest corner of South Dakota, and is inhabited by members of the Lakota people. Known for being one of the poorest parts of the country, Pine Ridge has an unemployment rate of 73-85 percent and an average per capita income of $4,000. As part of YouthWorks, a Christian-based mission trip organization based in Minneapolis, Father Jim has taken groups of both youth and adults to the Pine Ridge Reservation to help out in various ways, from painting the inside of buildings to cleaning up backyards and homes. “I’ve done this mission trip for the past 17 years,” Father Jim explained. “This past year we went to Manderson, near the [site of the] Wounded Knee massacre.”

As part of this year’s mission trip the group, which included students from Cotter High School as well as Winona Senior High School and several adults, worked on painting the interior of a local Manderson school. “The people who were employed by the school were so grateful for the facelift,” recalled Jess Strelow, who went on the trip with his daughter, Cotter student Alex Strelow. “They told us that the kids would be so happy to see a fresh look on the school and that it would definitely help the children’s attitudes [about attending classes].”

In addition to painting, for five days the group lived at the school and assimilated to the Lakota people and their culture. “We had a kids’ club and [we] gave a lot of hugs and piggyback rides,” said Alex Strelow, who has been on the Pine Ridge trip twice. “They were all so appreciative of what we did for them, and I felt a lot of satisfaction because I was able to help them.”

This year’s mission trip, which occurred in the sweltering July heat, fell under the category “YouthWorks Beyond,” which, according to Father Jim, involves more integration within the community being served than a regular YouthWorks mission trip. “We heard so much more from the Lakota people; we were able to learn more in-depth about what happens on the reservation,” Father Jim said of the trip. “Elders would come by every day and speak with us about their experiences [living on the reservation].”

Added Alex, “It was nice to spend time with the [Lakota] people. We got to eat with them every day, so we were able to see their way of life and culture. We got to see many of their sites and even got to kiss a buffalo!”

Even when he is not on the reservation, Father Jim reaches out to the Pine Ridge community throughout the year. “There are a number of ways to help,” he said. Through gathering donations from the Winona community to organizing the collection of Christmastime ditty bags filled with necessities, Father Jim and the people of Saint Mary’s Parish have made sure not to let the Lakota people of Pine Ridge forget that there are people who continue to think and care about them.

“Father Jim has such a loving and caring heart,” Alex said. “His passion for helping people is contagious. He loves helping the people of Pine Ridge, and I am sure he’ll be doing it another 17 years.”

If you would like to donate to help make an impact on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, contact Father Jim Berning at jberning@wacs1.org.  


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