Fulfilling a promise to her Native American grandmother

Story highlights

  • Rochelle Ripley's nonprofit has delivered an estimated $9 million in services and goods to the Lakota people
  • Nominations are open for 2016 CNN Heroes
  • Watch "CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute" now on CNNgo

Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation, South Dakota (CNN)In an isolated area of South Dakota -- a three-hour drive from the nearest large city -- some 6,000 Native Americans struggle to survive on the Cheyenne River Sioux Reservation.

They are members of the Lakota tribe. Poverty runs rampant on the reservation. So does unemployment, alcoholism and diabetes. Suicide rates are also high.
    Rochelle Ripley is working to change that.
    Growing up, Ripley spent her summers listening to her grandmother's stories.
    Her grandmother, a full-blooded Lakota, taught her about their culture and the struggles faced by the people.
    "She taught us to be very proud of who we were. Our people have survived through all of the challenges that have come over the generations," Ripley said.
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    Before her grandmother died, she asked Ripley to do one thing: Go home and help their people.
    Today, Ripley is fulfilling that promise.
    "The spirit of the people, it's alive. But they struggle with the conditions tremendously," Ripley said.
    Through her nonprofit, hawkwing, she has delivered an estimated $9 million in services and goods to the Lakota people.
    Ripley and her group help them find jobs and live in safe homes and provide them with healthy food.
    Four to five times a year, Ripley makes the trip from her home in Connecticut to the Cheyenne River Reservation. Working alongside the tribe, she and volunteers run a food bank and provide free health services, home renovations and educational opportunities.
    For Ripley, the main goal is honoring the Native American people with dignity.
    "My grandma gave me the gift of being put on this path," said Ripley, who is one-quarter Lakota. "To be able to both honor her and to honor our people here, that's the reason for life."
    CNN spoke to Ripley about her efforts on the reservation. Below is an edited version of the conversation.
    CNN: You have been steadily providing help to the reservation for 16 years. How do you begin to address the myriad issues there?
    Rochelle Ripley: I describe what hawkwing does as a table and that there's four legs to the table: housing, health, employment and education/job skills. And the tabletop is jobs. Until those four legs are secured and solid, we can't put the top on.
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    Top 10 CNN Hero Rochelle Ripley 01:48
    We started by providing a holiday gift box to every child on the reservation, about 2,600. They all get new clothes, toys, books, personal care products and school supplies. It was to form and build relationships. We continue that to this day.
    About seven years ago, we added a variety of direct service projects like medical and dental clinics, construction work and youth activities. Through hawkwing's efforts, we've provided between 100,000 and 125,000 pounds of food, and we get in everything from beds to washers and dryers."
    Extra: Lakota Way
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    CNN: Health issues are a big challenge on the reservation. How do you help?
    Ripley: We really do work collaboratively with the tribe everywhere we go. We have naturopathic doctors who give out supplements and vitamins and lots of information on how to eat healthy, how to take care of your diabetes. We have a respiratory therapist meet with families that have challenges around asthma, which is also a big issue because of black mold out here. We have an acupuncturist doing acupuncture for stress management.
    One of the reasons that we bring a lot of naturopathic people out as part of our medical team is because it really is paralleled to the type of medicine that our ancestors practiced. The medicines are still here all over the reservation. So many of our elders, especially, really appreciate getting that type of education and opportunity. They love getting the natural teas as part of their healing. They love working with any of the alternative ways as well as using traditional Western medicine.
    CNN: You've turned personal tragedy into something that benefits an entire community.
    Ripley: When I was child, I was a victim of a violent crime. And during that time, I stopped speaking. When I went to see my grandma, she did a healing ceremony on me, and we spent the day together. She talked about our culture. That's when she said to me that I was born into two worlds, because my other side is New York Jewish. And she asked me if I would promise to go home and help our people when I grew up.
    CNN: You made that promise, but it wasn't until 45 years later that you acted on it. What triggered you?
    Ripley: When my daughter came to me to tell me I was to be a grandmother for the first time, that memory came back, and I knew it was time for me to do the work that needed to be done.
    In my mind, things had to have improved to some degree because it was 45 years later. I just was shocked that it was worse than I could imagine. So that was just that motivation that really spurred me on to create hawkwing. It really was the inspiration to say I understood what my grandmother meant and it was time to get moving and change things. And I decided to take my human services skills that I had built as a lifetime career and form a nonprofit to begin the process of coming home and helping.
    We're all children of this earth, and we need to work together so that everyone has a chance at having a decent life.
    Want to get involved? Check out the hawkwing website at www.hawkwing.org and see how to help.