LAME DEAR, MONT. >> There is a group of basketball-loving youths in the area of Lame Deer, Montana who had never heard of Southern Vermont College or its head men's basketball coach, Dan Engelstad, before last week.
Then there is Engelstad himself, who had never experienced working with youngsters in a setting like the Tribal Prevention Initiative (TIPI) -- until last week.
Engelstad flew out to Lame Deer, an area within the Northern Cheyenne Indian Reservation in the southeastern part of Montana, to volunteer and work with children at the Northern Cheyenne Basketball and Wellness Clinic for four days. The camp is part of TIPI, a substance abuse prevention program for kids in six reservations.
"While I went to serve," Engelstad said. "I left a stronger man with what I learned from the remarkable youths and coaches at the Clinic and on the reservation. The TIPI program is very important for the kids to be given opportunities like the camp so that they can develop healthy habits at a young age that can be continued into adulthood."
Engelstad was presented the opportunity by Glenn Farello, a close friend and coach at Paul VI Catholic High School in Fairfax, Virginia.
"Growing up in a family that encouraged us to experience other cultures and lifestyles, I've been fortunate to travel the world and gain a number of those experiences," Engelstad commented. "I have seen beauty- but also some unthinkable poverty all over our country. I enjoy learning from others, hearing their stories, and experiencing their customs. Glenn inspired me to volunteer, and I immediately jumped at the opportunity."
Each morning of the week started out with Engelstad taking a walk with Curtis Symonds and Tracy Williams, a pair of coaches who are also good friends and mentors to him. The stroll allowed Symonds and Williams to share with Engelstad how similar trips have impacted them and what to expect for the week. They discussed coaching, teamwork, and life overall.
As the kids entered the gym one-by-one on the first day of camp at the reservation, it didn't take long for their new coach to no longer be a stranger.
"Though they were all new faces to me, the connection was immediate," Engelstad said. "We were greeted with hugs and excitement. As a basketball coach, I enjoy working with kids who want to work hard, have a positive attitude, and are appreciative; each of the kids there had all three attributes. They worked extremely hard on improving their skills and their game. Their energy, perseverance, and appreciation inspired me every day."
Each day's sessions included skill stations, ball-handling workouts, competitions and games. But the trip was not limited to purely basketball, as Engelstad and the coaches also took the opportunity to soak up some of the history and culture of the area.
One morning, following breakfast at a local restaurant that treated and fed the group well all week, the counselors set out for the site of the Battle of the Little Bighorn.
"It was amazingly powerful to hear some of the stories and the recounts of Custer's Last Stand," Engelstad noted. "I looked across the beautiful land with a sense of melancholy as I visualized the significant battle that took place in 1876. That moment of living history provided an important window into understanding the struggles of the reservations that might be carried on to this current generation."
As the children provided Engelstad with an eye-opening and touching experience, he in turn provided them- not only with his basketball knowledge- but some Southern Vermont gear.
On the last day of the camp, each of the youths wore SVC t-shirts given to them by the Mountaineer head coach.
"It filled me with pride to see them with smiles on their faces- knowing the hard work and dedication they had given during the week," Engelstad added.
The day ended with a drive into the scenic mountains where the coaches and youngsters laughed about the events of the week and looked out over the incredible Montana landscape, a view that included wild black bear. "We were all amazed by the sight, but none more than the Marty 'The Zookeeper' who works at the National Zoo in Washington, D.C.," Engelstad said.
As the sun set on Engelstad's final day in Lame Deer, the group of coaches partook in one final custom in the Treasure State as they, along with a few members of the Northern Cheyenne tribe, participated in a traditional sweat.
"As I looked up at the sky full of stars from outside the sweat lodge, a dome-shaped hut made with natural materials, I felt full of the spirits of the reservation and knew this was a life-changing experience," the Mountaineer coach noted.
Looking back on the week, Engelstad claimed, "My hope is that these outstanding youths will continue to use the skills from the coaches and the clinic in both their sports and in their lives. I know that I will use what I learned from them."