Woodbury YMCA takes part in Sioux Initiative

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Alan Voy of the Woodbury YMCA is still decompressing after returning from a recent trip to the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.

Through a partnership between the Twin Cities and Sioux YMCAs, he and other local YMCA workers had been traveling across South Dakota as part of what's called the Sioux Initiative.

The program sends workers to several communities within the Cheyenne River Reservation for two weeks, which serves as diversity training method for Y workers. In exchange, children living in those communities get a few hours of physical and recreational activities.

Families in Cheyenne River communities face significant health challenges, including high rates of childhood obesity, that YMCA leaders say stems from poverty and limited program options.

According to the U.S. Census, the 4,400 square mile reservation located near the center of South Dakota has some of the deepest levels of poverty in the country.

On a typical day, Voy, 25, of River Falls, Wis., and his team would commute several hundred miles to remote communities on the reservation.

Driving a van with YMCA decals splashed across it, they blasted the iconic disco theme song by the Village People as they rolled into towns. They brought basketballs to give away and set up two hour day camps in about six communities with the goal of providing 20 hours of activity.

Some kids were slow to open up, while others came running when they saw the YMCA had come.

"The one thing they told us in training that helped me was ... kids are kids," Voy said. "They're there to play games, run around, goof off and be silly."

Other times, they'd let the kids invent their own games to play. Voy recalls one of the most memorable games came by the name of "Stole your Hand." It was essentially tag, he said.

The kids also taught their visitors a few phrases and words Lakota.

Rural poverty and the resulting challenges are something Voy was familiar with before setting out on his journey.

His family is native to Alaska, and some of the issues within the Cheyenne River communities were similar to Native Alaskans, he said. Voy added that seeing what rural poverty looked like was a new experience for his fellow team members.

He said he feels his team made some difference in the kids' lives by providing an afternoon of fun and an opportunity to act as role models for healthy living.

"With overcoming something as old and ingrained as the generational trauma that Native Americans have been through, starting with strong kids is probably the best place to start," Voy said.

Voy said he hopes to enroll in the program in the future.