Compassion is contagious

A volunteer trip to Red Cliff Reservation helps students grow

More stories from Leah Fischer-Toerpe

Randy Casey:
September 24, 2019

Photo by Courtesy of Patrice Jefferies

Alison Welli and Antoinette Jackson picking up garbage at one of the two cemeteries the group cleaned as part of their service.

Giving back to the community has always been important to the members of the West Allis Campus Student Government.
Every year, as a group, they dedicate their time and effort to supporting a different cause. Usually, this means raising money or collecting supplies. This time they did something different.
What began as a simple food drive turned into a complex undertaking, a five-day trip and an emotional experience that student Allison Welli described as, “the most eye-opening and prosperous volunteer venture I’ve ever been on.”
It started with a simple idea. Seven hours north of Milwaukee, on the coast of Lake Superior, is Red Cliff Reservation, home of the Red Cliff band of the Ojibwe people. It’s a small community where everyone knows everyone and people look out for each other. It has only two restaurants (the big one and the little one), and no major chains, supermarkets, or box stores.
As idyllic as that sounds for some, it poses a real hardship for poorer members of the community who don’t have cars. When they need groceries, they have to choose between the high prices and narrow choices of the few local mom-and-pop stores, or a two-hour bus ride to the nearest Walmart. If they choose the bus, they’re limited to three bags, making it difficult for families to stock up, a real problem when the heavy snows of winter hit.
One student, herself a Red Cliff tribal member, Antoinette Jackson, suggested donating to the Red Cliff food pantry. “A lot of people mistake them for having money because they have a casino, but there’s only so much that can support,” she said.
Her fellow Student Government members were immediately enthusiastic because they’re a supportive group and they love Jackson. They describe her as a kind, friendly person, who is always willing to lend a helping hand, and makes everyone she knows feel valued and cared about. They threw themselves into the venture. Together, they held a donations drive for non-perishable food and toiletries. They also raised money by selling over 50 paintings in the West Allis Campus hallways at lunch –many painted by Jackson herself, and other paintings by members Nicole Blasezyk, Alison Welli, Sonia Puthenpurayil, and Ramon Perez. As they did this, they discussed the logistics of their plan. The cost of shipping all the food they were collecting would be prohibitive. Driving it up themselves would take all day. Everyone wanted to do something more meaningful than mail a check, and Jackson wanted to spend some time in the community. Thus, the plan was born: As soon as the semester ended, they would drive the supplies up and stay in Red Cliff for a few days to volunteer.
They arrived Memorial Day weekend, and immediately realized they were somewhere special. Red Cliff is a place where compassion is contagious and everyone is family. “Everywhere we went,” said faculty adviser, Patrice Jefferies, “people were so nice…in the town … on Madeline Island.” They were so compassionate toward each other, Jefferies believed it rubbed off on her students, strengthening the compassion they already had. The students were blown away by the kindness and the gratitude of the residents. “It makes me want to help out more in my community,” said Perez. “Helping people and seeing how much they appreciate it made me feel so good,” Welli noted that everyone they met was open and willing to share their stories and experiences, leading to several moving conversations. Other students were similarly affected, with several resolving to come back and help again. The pride they took in their heritage-inspired the students too. “It made me want to learn about my roots,” said Perez.
Over the course of three days in town (in between two full days of driving), the students cleaned cemeteries, cleared a road, and worked in the kitchens of the housing authority, preparing and then serving a meal to the elders of the community. Seeing her students work tirelessly for others with open hearts was especially powerful for Jefferies. “You don’t always get to be a witness to things like that, the good in our students, but our students are amazing … They worked tirelessly. Not one of them ever complained.” As complex as this trip was to plan, she would do it again “in a heartbeat.”
Residents of Red Cliff were also impressed. Edwina Buffalo, who worked closely with the students on each event, said, “They are all great people for doing this. No one told them to do this, it came from the heart.” The elders, in particular, loved meeting and learning about the diverse group of students, who came from many different places and backgrounds. They joked with the students and talked to them – about the importance of treating everyone compassionately, the greatness of diversity, and the reason the older men and women don’t sit together (according to one man, the ladies like to gossip, and the men just hold them back). For Jackson, this warm welcome was especially powerful. As eager as she had been to visit, there was a part of her that worried. How would she – as someone of Native American and African American descent, who hadn’t grown up here – be accepted? She was welcomed as family. In fact, when some residents learned her grandmother’s last name, they introduced her to her great-great-uncle! She learned that many of the residents had moved up here from Milwaukee, and was assured that Red Cliff was her home, too. “It isn’t where you grew up,” one man, Marvin Defoe, told her. “It’s what’s in your heart.” That, for many, is the biggest takeaway. Many factors contributed to the success of this trip. However, the most important were the people involved and the contents of their hearts. The students, the teachers, and the residents involved approached each other with openness, and that made all the difference. Said Jefferies, “I will carry this trip in my heart forever.”