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A Bright Future for Reservation Students

Nonprofit Windswept Academy provides a path to success for children living on the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation

Bethany Starin

When Anne Konur took her first step onto Cheyenne River Indian Reservation in South Dakota in 2001, she was in shock.

“I could not stand to see the way the children were living. Children came in without shoes,” Konur said. “I have traveled all over the world and it was so different from any place in America.”

Konur was introduced to the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation community as part of a Vacation Bible School (VBS) mission trip sent from her home church in Hamilton, Virginia. Konur remembers running to the store in a flurry to purchase shoes for every needy child. It was that week she said she got her marching orders for the next few years.

Konur, 61 at the time, felt the Lord leading her to start a school, though she and her husband were hesitant to leave their life—plus, their children and grandchildren—in Virginia behind. Plus, neither of them had a college degree.

“Two high schoolers starting a school really is comical,” Konur said with a hearty laugh. But the next year, her husband joined her on the annual VBS mission trip, and they both grew convinced.

In 2006, the duo bought a house in Faith, South Dakota, 40 miles from Eagle Butte, and in 2009, they launched nonprofit Windswept Academy with 12 students from the Cheyenne River Indian Reservation.

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The goal of Windswept Academy is three fold: to provide free and Christ-centered education, to break the cycle of national education discrepancies for Native American students, and to pave the way for a healthy life post-school years, whether inside or outside the reservation.

Sadly, according to the DOE report card, Native American students have the lowest attendance rate of any ethnic group in South Dakota at 72 percent. In addition, native children also have the highest rate of chronic absenteeism of any racial group in the state—37 percent.

“A lot of parents want their children to grow up just like them—living out a life of alcoholism and drug addiction,” Konur said. “They don’t want them to leave the reservation.”

While Windswept’s goal is not for them to leave the reservation, the hope is that Windswept students will have options for their future.

“Very few students leave the reservation, and if they do they come back,” said Unique Hawk Eagle, one of the first high school graduates of Windswept Academy. “There really is nothing to go back to but your family. Going to college on the reservation is hard, finding jobs is hard.”

When Unique graduated in May of 2020 from Windswept Academy, she relocated to the Washington, D.C. area and pursued certification as a nurse. Currently, she lives with Konur’s daughter, Elizabeth Freiberg, and is thriving.

“I have been part of Windswept from the beginning and have known Unique for several years,” Freiberg said. “Unique has done so well. She graduated as a certified nursing assistant and is now working for a retirement home for a year. She may go on to nursing school.”

So why choose a different path? Unique, now 19, said she wants to be an example of hope for her younger family members. “I want to be a role model for my nieces and nephews for when they get older. They are all young and don’t have role models in their lives to show them that they can leave and they can succeed.”

Unique’s mom moved her from public school to Windswept in sixth grade due to bullying she experienced. She said she had loving, supportive teachers at Windswept and their impact has been long lasting.

“I want to care for people,” Unique said of her career plans. “It’s what I have been doing since I was 13, taking care of nieces and nephews and siblings and grandparents. It’s what I naturally do.”

Due to COVID-19, Windswept Academy had to close its doors to students and launch virtual education last spring. This meant that Unique’s final months at Windswept were spent remote learning with a tablet issued by the Reservation.  Throughout the entire pandemic, only one case of COVID-19 was logged among the teachers and students, Konur noted.

The biggest challenge has been the inability to keep a pulse on student’s needs.

“When they were going to school every day, we knew exactly what circumstances they were in because they knew they were safe at Windswept,” said Ilhami Konur, Anne’s husband and president of the board. “They always came in hungry and got a full hot breakfast and lunch, and we sent them home with a snack so they could make it through to the next day.”

Early this month, Windswept Academy reopened its doors and all the teachers welcomed the students. Of the 94 students, 78 chose to return in person versus virtual learning, and things have been running smoothly, Konur said.

“The children came in so happy,” Konur said. “They are wearing their masks when not at their desks.” Teachers hung plastic shower curtains between each desk so they could see and talk with each other.  The janitor sprays the entire school daily. They are cautious but not fearful, Konur said.

Run entirely on donations, Windswept Academy has made it through the pandemic fully funded, Konur said. “We don’t have any debt and it’s all from donations and we raise about $450,000 per year to run the school,” Konur said, adding that the board of directors and Konurs donate their time; teachers and others staff are salaried.

The most difficult roadblock they’ve hit, Konur said, is building trust.

Locals tend to be suspicious that outsiders plan to take something from them, she said, especially considering our country’s history of assimilation and racism against indiginous people.

“One man came up to my husband in Wal-Mart and said, ‘I could have run over you in the parking lot and made a lot of people happy.’ Two years later, that same man came up to us and thanked us for everything we are doing for the children,” Konur said. “We have had roadblocks.”

But time and consistent investment has proven fruitful. Their student body has grown from 12 in 2009 to 100 students in the 2020-2021 school year.

Looking to the future, Konur said the goal is to add a second campus to host vocational schooling as part of the high school program.

“My number one passion is a vocational school so that when the students are in high school, they can become plumbers and electricians and gain other skills for jobs,” Konur said. “Students would go to the vocational school 2-3 hours per day.”

As for their personal future, the Konurs are in South Dakota for the long haul. “We own our burial plots in Faith, South Dakota,” Konur said. “I will do anything for these kids. And believe me, God has never ever let us be in the red.”

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