St. Joseph’s Indian School Bookmobile Completes Summer Tour

Posted on: July 9, 2021

(Chamberlain, S.D.) — The St. Joseph’s Indian School Bookmobile wrapped up a busy summer on Thursday, August 8. The outreach made stops in 42 communities, zig-zagging the state to serve more than 1,300 children and adults. Forty-one alumni came out to visit with Alumni Liaison and Bookmobile Coordinator Andy Lepkowski and the crew.

In addition to Andy, eleven of the school’s staff volunteered this year, several of them family service counselors hoping to connect with families and students. Luisana Gonzalez DiTillio and Bianca Contreras Lopez, both undergraduate English majors at the University of Notre Dame who participated in the six-week experience as a summer internship, also joined the crew.

The Bookmobile crew distributed nearly 6,500 books, 1,800 of which were Native American books by Native American authors. Lily Mendoza of the Bird Cage Book Store and Mercantile in Rapid City, S.D., assisted the school in ordering the special books, which were a major hit with visitors.

A stop at the Chamberlain, S.D., pool is planned for the end of July.

Contreras’ reflection on her experience included these thoughts:

Before starting my internship, I [had] preconceived notions regarding Native Americans, and I had not been well-informed about their history. I gained a clearer understanding of their lifestyle and historical past. I learned about the living conditions on the reservations and the hardships families encountered during the height of the COVID-19 pandemic.

I vividly recall two interactions. One involved an elder giving me a small green pouch he had made. I found myself deeply touched by his actions, and I plan on taking great care of his gift. The second memory involved visiting the Wounded Knee Massacre site and talking with a Native American man who had set up a small table in the parking lot for his beadwork. As I observed his work, he brought out a binder full of documents and began explaining his family’s history and the history surrounding different treaties.

I recognize the importance of my internship in how I will proceed with my life following its conclusion.

Gonzalez shared these impressions:

I found that whatever minor challenges we experienced along the way, there was never any question as to the value of our efforts. Why is that? Well, it’s the same reason why in towns under 1,000 people, hours away from campus, we still met multi-generational alumni and their families. It is because the Bookmobile is St. Joseph’s Bookmobile, and at the heart of St. Joe’s mission is an unquestionable commitment to serving the Native American community for generations of families.

Bianca and I were struck by the remembrance of the power of a book, especially for a child. As an English major who devotes her study to books, I rarely get half as excited as many of the kids who thumbed through the shelves of the Bookmobile. There were many instances when a random picture book of, say, a beaver who buys mittens – something Bianca and I would quickly restock into a bottom shelf on Monday morning – would then get re-presented to us twenty four hours later, by a child half a state away, as a precious and rare artifact.

These experiences not only reconnected me to the physical matter of my passion, literature, but they also connected the mission of the Bookmobile across all the miles of travel and all the children and families who visited the Bookmobile. We heard many different life stories, both of triumph and pain, from the visitors who came by and talked with us about their lives. Nevertheless, no matter how varied their experiences were, they came by to connect with our mission, to get a book for themselves or someone in their lives.

Over the six weeks, as I witnessed and learned about cultures and communities that were different from mine, I was profoundly moved by the importance of connection, the importance of reaching out, through and beyond books. It reaffirmed on some level my passion for reading and it reified my passion for working with children. For these reasons among many others, I am deeply grateful for the experience of interning with the Bookmobile, for meeting and interacting with the lovely St. Joe staff, and for meeting the amazing visitors of the Bookmobile.

Without a doubt, the world is a richer place for the many connections made this summer through the St. Joseph’s Indian School Bookmobile.

Pictured left to right: Bianca Contreras Lopez and Luisana Gonzales DiTillo