PLAINWELL, Mich. — Cindy Hicks-Orth has an estimated 3,000 stuffed animals spread out across the floor of her garage.
Soon, they will be packaged up and trucked halfway across the country to the Rosebud Sioux Tribe of Indians in South Dakota, where poverty is rampant and children have little to eat, not to mention play toys. Hicks-Orth, who makes a trip to bring donations to the reservation once a year, describes living conditions as that of a developing nation: multiple families packed into run-down homes, where children sleep on cold floors and wood to fuel furnaces runs short.
To make the problem worse, there is barely enough food to go around.
“They eat maybe two or three times a week, that’s it,” Hicks-Orth said.
What started as a small collection four months ago through her nonprofit organization, the Giving Back To Wounded Knee Foundation, quickly grew into the thousands. Classes at Michigan State University, her alma mater, started sending teddy bears by the bag loads. The school’s head football coach, Mark Dantonio, even gave a signed football. Word continued to spread; a judge from Tennessee sent her a shipment of 150 stuffed animals, which he collected from members of his community.
“The little kids are always last, and there are problems with alcohol and drug abuse on the reservation,” Hicks-Orth said. “What we’re trying to do is honor them.”
In the past, Giving Back To Wounded knee has provided other services to South Dakota Sioux tribes, including giving heaters for the winter months.
Now they are beginning to partner with MSU student volunteer groups, who also have been helping the tribe to undertake service projects for the tribe. They’ve also received help from local church groups, who have donated handmade book bags filled with school supplies to deliver to the children.
Pfizer also donated aspirin, cough syrup and diabetes supplies.
“We’re getting to the point we can’t handle it,” Hicks-Orth said of the volume of donations.
The Giving Back To Wounded Knee Foundation gives assistance to descendants of the Sioux Tribe who were affected by the Wounded Knee Massacre more than a century ago. Soldiers killed about 300 Sioux Indians in South Dakota when they refused to stop participating in a traditional dance.
Today, lack of jobs, tools and isolation keep the tribe steeped in poverty, Hicks-Orth said. The unemployment rate on the Rosebud reservation is about 90 percent.
“They don’t have anything - nothing,” she said. “It’s really like a third-world country.”
Information from: Kalamazoo Gazette, http://www.mlive.com/kalamazoo