PINE RIDGE INDIAN RESERVATION – Choking back tears, 56-year-old Army veteran Mike Slow Bear paces around his back yard, shocked by the generosity of fellow veterans.
Slow Bear has lived in a small one room cabin since 1972. The cabin, built by his grandfathers, has no indoor plumbing and is heated by a wood stove. Years of harsh weather, including the 1999 tornado, has reduced the cabin to a dilapidated state. The July storm, with baseball size hail and 86 mph winds, did a lot of damage to the roof, siding and windows.
“I had a new roof on the cabin, but the storm just blew the shingles off. Now I have leaks all over. I feel pretty good today. Hardly no one ever comes out here to help me or check on me. This means so much,” stated Slow Bear.
The storm ravaged many homes in and around the community of Oglala. The following week, a tornado ripped through the Kyle area.
While many residents are still waiting for repair assistance from the Oglala Sioux Tribe or private contractors, a group of veterans have sprung into action to aid their fellow comrades in need.
“Veterans Helping Veterans” is a group of Oglala Lakota veterans based on Pine Ridge whose mission is to provide outreach services to vets in need. Their initial focus is helping veterans get their homes winterized and aid in storm recovery assistance.
Jerilyn “Jeri” Arredondo, a soft-spoken former Marine and mother of six children, launched the program in 2016, when she tried to get assistance to help an elderly veteran with much needed home repairs, to no avail. Then she unexpectedly relocated out of state.
“He passed away recently and perhaps if he had been in a better living environment, he might still be alive today. This is what inspired me to pursue this project again,” added Arredondo.
Upon her return home in June, in true Marine fashion, she hit the ground running.
“I started this program because many veterans needed help with home repairs. There are no programs available to assist with even minor repairs, such as fixing a front step or replacing a window. With winter coming up, I wanted to help weatherize homes of veterans,” stated Arredondo, program founder and Oglala Lakota County Veterans Service Officer.
Like every soldier knows, it takes a team to get the job done. Arredondo relies on a team of like-minded tenacious veterans to assist in this endeavor. Daniel Bear Runner, Public Relations Officer for the Oglala Lakota Veterans Committee and Chairman of the Partnership for Housing fully supports the initiative.
“Jeri reached out to us a few weeks ago to start this program. She had discussed the concept with me a while back, but we could not get the resource support we needed. We both went different directions to see this come to fruition,” stated Bear Runner.
Bear Runner has tapped into his contacts through the Partnership for Housing to request donations of materials to assist veterans in need. The bulk of the winterization materials, such as plastic sheeting and boards, have been received by the Four Feathers organization based in Kyle, according to Bear Runner.
Recognizing the great need and lack of action from the Oglala Sioux Tribe, the program reached out to vets from each of the nine districts on Pine Ridge to pinpoint veterans in critical need. They intend to move from district to district and assist where they can, according to Bear Runner.
To date, the program has winterized 25 homes in 6 districts and Arredondo vows to continue to work on vets’ homes if the weather permits or until the supplies are gone, and then work on elderly homes as more materials become available.
To make a tax-deductible donation or offer other support to the Veterans Helping Veterans, contact Arredondo at (605) 867-2555.
(Contact Natalie Hand at email@example.com)