SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (AP) — A dozen graduate students from Illinois are headed to South Dakota's Pine Ridge Indian Reservation this week to fix roofs, repair trailer skirts and build porches in a community that's constantly battling poverty and high unemployment.
The 900-mile trip west is part of an ongoing effort by MBA students from University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign, who created the not-for-profit Kola Foundation two years ago as part of a long-term commitment to build relationships with the Oglala Lakota people.
"It's about getting students exposed to this community giving them the opportunity to go out there and do some good and hopefully get motivated to come back and use their skills to help out and take over next year," said Shelly Wohaldo, a second-year MBA student who serves as Kola's chief executive officer.
The group's goal is to stimulate the local economy of Pine Ridge while promoting education, improving health care and fostering hope, said Wohaldo, 26. Ten of the 12 Kola volunteers making the trip this week are incoming students who will begin pursing their masters' degrees this fall.
The student group arranges its trips with Re-Member, a Pine Ridge-based non-profit organization that works with the Oglala Sioux Tribe to organize volunteers from churches, schools and corporations for service projects.
Re-Member Director Ted Skantze said the MBA students are great kids with caring hearts, and he likes that as somebody graduates from the school, leadership positions are handed down to the next person.
"They have sustainability," Skantze said. "It's not like they're here today and gone tomorrow. They have genuine interest."
The business school's association with Pine Ridge began in 2010 when then-dean Stig Lanesskog took four students on a 2010 trip out to the reservation.
Lanesskog, now an associate provost, wanted the MBA program to stress corporate and social responsibility and he was looking for ways to give students hands-on experience that could help guide future decision making.
"When you're in a situation to be able to make a decision about locating your business, are you only thinking about the financial aspects?" Lanesskog wondered. "Can you be thinking about the other impact beyond financials?"
So students Adam Ratner and Nick Reynolds created the Kola Foundation, with plans to turn over leadership to new students each year. Participation by MBA students is voluntary with no course or internship credits offered.
The Kola Foundation partnered with LDS Charities in April 2011 to deliver $80,000 worth of winter clothes, hygiene kits, school kits and quilts, and a group of new students travel out to Pine Ridge each summer.
Ratner, a foundation co-founder who has since graduated, said getting students out to the reservation is key.
"These people saw it for themselves, so Day 1 they were invested," Ratner said. "For our first year, we had to spend the first month and a half educating people about Pine Ridge so they would care."
Ratner said he hopes as Kola Foundation graduates spread out into the business world, they'll continue to support the group and have their employers contribute.
Wohaldo said Kola is trying to use its business knowledge and resources to spur economic development on the reservation. The group is helping to sponsor the LNI Business Plan Competition, which is each December in Rapid City as part of the annual Lakota Nations Invitational basketball tournament. And it's looking at ways to provide help in developing and improving small businesses on the reservation through consulting.
Kola also wants to pair reservation high school students with MBA student mentors to help prepare them for college. The foundation aims to bring two students out to the university next summer to spend a few weeks immersed in education enrichment courses and real-world projects sponsored by companies such as Kraft and ADM.
Wohaldo said Kola is working primarily through partnerships with groups such as Re-Member, Teach for America and Lakota Funds. Student leaders are always looking for opportunities to connect with more people, but she hopes that projects grow at a rate that allows them to be successful in the long run.
"Everyone's really excited and you've got lots of ideas, but we want to make sure that what we start is something that we can definitely finish and it's something that can be replicable in the future," she said.
Skantze said he appreciates the economic development focus of the group.
"Every person that's employed means more money stays here on the rez, and that's real important," he said.