toys to the Pine Ridge reservation
Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, South Dakota: This is the Christmas that almost wasn't for about 500 children on the Pine Ridge Indian reservation.
A truck filled with toys broke down about halfway along its 480-mile journey from Omaha. The driver climbed out and made some calls but found no help. So he smacked this and pushed that and, somehow, the engine started back up.
Still, he couldn't coax the reluctant truck to go over 40 mph.
Maybe it was the bitter cold; maybe it was the blinding, driving snow during the pitch-black final leg. But it was a long, long journey for driver and truck. The seven-hour trip stretched into 13.
What the driver didn't know, and didn't find out until he was snug and warm back in Omaha, was that if he hadn't persevered, there wouldn't have been toys for the boys and girls waiting just across the northwest Nebraska border in South Dakota.
A similar truck from Colorado never left that state because folks there couldn't raise enough money for the toys and trip. And a truck from Kansas broke down and couldn't be revived.
"If not for him, and Omaha, there would have been no Christmas at all," said David Swallow Jr., who, along with Harvey Ironboy, has organized Christmas activities for children in the reservation's Porcupine district since 1979.
Somehow, Swallow said, the truck contained enough toys that each child was able to pick out three - everything from bikes to basketballs.
"It really did amaze me. It was only Omaha that covered this year's event," he said. "Any kind of toy that you can imagine. You ought to see the little eyes on those kids."
The Pine Ridge reservation is a land where unemployment runs 85 percent, Swallow said. Some homes lack electricity and running water. Step inside some people's trailer homes in the winter and you'll see frost on the walls.
And because some folks don't have cars, organizers on the reservation traveled many miles, picking up children and taking them into a school gymnasium for the toy giveaway.
Larry Dunn, who drove the Omaha truck and organized the toy drive, said the kids' happiness is his reward. And the credit, he said, should go to his fellow musicians and others in the Omaha area who helped make the toy drive a success.
The musicians and Dunn, better known by his stage name, Lash LaRue, organized four benefit concerts this year for the toy drive. The musicians also compiled a holiday album available at Homer's Music & Gifts and at Garage Guitar.
Dunn has done this for five years. This year, for the second year, he stopped in Gordon, Neb., and picked up 60 pizzas for lunch. It makes the event more of a gathering, a family affair, he said. For kids living in the way-back part of the reservation, who rarely see pizza, that's almost as much a treat as the toys.
"It's a big thing for them," Swallow said. "Even a can of pop is."
Was the trip worth it?
"The only thing that ever sticks out in my mind is the faces of the kids," Dunn said. "That erases any of the trouble we had getting there."