Robert Young once was a successful Seattle business owner who thought poverty was “someone else’s responsibility.” But a visit in 1994 to the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in South Dakota changed his thinking—and the course of his life—dramatically.
“Pine Ridge looked like a Third World country,” recalls Young, 45, who was shocked at the widespread poverty he saw: homes with no heat, no electricity, no running water. He returned to Seattle vowing to do something about the problem.
A year later, he came back to Pine Ridge, along with a crew of volunteers, to build a new home for one of the residents, Lakota elder Katherine Red Feather, 75. “It was the hardest work I’ve ever done,” Young admits. But it also was the most meaningful, planting the seeds for the nonprofit organization that Young would start to assist American Indians in improving housing conditions on their reservations.
Since 1995, Young’s Red Feather Development Group, named after the recipient of the first home he helped build, has helped construct and coordinate financing for dozens of homes on reservations in Arizona, Montana, South Dakota and Washington. Young sold his clothing manufacturing business and relocated the operation, originally begun as a part-time venture, to Bozeman, Mont., in 2003, pouring all his time and resources into the project and taking it full-time.
Young and his staff work closely with American Indian communities to navigate the complexities of building on reservation land and ultimately construct a home that addresses the needs of each recipient. “It’s empowering to be part of the process,” he says. “Community involvement is the key; they’re the experts at what’s best for them, not us.”
Families selected must pay a mortgage and work alongside Red Feather staff and volunteers during construction. Last year, Red Feather helped Mark and Tammy Roundstone build a new home on the Northern Cheyenne Reservation, 100 miles east of Billings, Mont., where tribal president Eugene Little Coyote says providing housing is a challenge.
“There are 200 families on the waiting list,” says Coyote, who points out the drastic measures some tribal members are willing to undertake to keep their families on the reservation.
Before moving into their new home, the Roundstones lived in an abandoned house with no doors or toilet, determined to remain in their community rather than move away. When the Roundstones learned they could build a new home on the reservation with the help of Red Feather, they originally turned down the offer.
“As a tribal leader, I can’t live materially rich when my neighbors are in poverty,” Roundstone reasoned. But deciding their actions might motivate others to take similar steps to improve their situations, the couple had a change of heart.
“It’s like throwing rocks in calm water,” Roundstone says. “It will spread, and our community will experience positive changes.”
Young attributes Red Feather’s success to its dedicated staff, volunteers and the generous financial support of individuals and corporations, which donate materials, building supplies and tools. Volunteers come from around the world to donate their time during the four weeks of a typical construction project, pounding nails, hauling supplies, hanging drywall, cutting lumber and doing cleanup. Donations fund professional tradesmen, usually from the community, for specialty work such as plumbing and electrical.
Jan Waters, a nurse from Atlanta, has volunteered for four Red Feather building projects. “You feel as if you get back so much by giving of yourself,” she says. “When you leave, your heart and soul feel good, and your spirit is balanced.”
Young knows from experience that an individual can make an enormous difference. “It’s our responsibility to assist one another,” he says. “We must ask ourselves what kind of world we wish to live in, and know that we are all a vital part of the solution.”