BROOKFIELD – Although they live in the United States, residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation might as well be half a world away.
While watching a television documentary, Erika Zenchak of Brookfield found she knew little about the Oglala Sioux Indians who make their home at Pine Ridge in South Dakota. And she figured other young people like her were unfamiliar with the hardships people in this reservation endure.
“We don’t often learn about life on reservations,” Zenchak said. “I saw a documentary on TV that talked about that particular reservation. It had interviews with the people who lived there about how they live. The documentary really inspired me to become more involved.”
Zenchak decided to put together a presentation about life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation for eighth-grade students at S.E. Gross Middle School in Brookfield. Her project was titled “Native Neighbors in Need.”
She spoke to the students last year in May and October. She also held a clothing drive at the school to send to Pine Ridge, which ended in January.
As a member of Girl Scout Troop 180, Zenchak was given the Gold Award for her project June 8. This is the highest level award that a Girl Scout can win.
“To win the award, the project has to be one that impacts your community or a community in some way. It’s a lot of work to do,” said Zenchak, who graduated from Riverside Brookfield High School this year. “It requires at least 80 hours of work to do. And so, the project has to benefit the community.”
Zenchak, 18, was the only Girl Scout from her troop to win the award this year. She joined about 80 other Girl Scouts from Girl Scouts of Chicago and Northwest Indiana at the Gold Award ceremony in receiving this honor.
“It was remarkable,” Zenchak said. “The ceremony, seeing all these other girls and their projects, it was very inspiring.”
The clothing drive yielded 270 pounds of clothing items, Zenchak said. They were sent to a youth emergency center on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation so children could get the clothing they need, she said. She also raised money at the school through bake sales and direct donations.
Zenchak said the students with whom she spoke responded well to her message of helping the residents of Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
“They were very receptive. I think they were kind of taken back by the presentation,” Zenchak said. “They were exposed to life on reservation. It really made a huge impact on them.”