By Denise DePaolo
Images by Emily Swan Photography
It’s time to recognize those who stand out and show great promise for the year ahead. Each year, 605 selects a group of young leaders from a pile of nominations – all qualified for recognition in their own way. This year’s honorees each bring something amazing to their community and state, through their tireless belief that they as individuals can make a difference.
“Whitney is a positive leader for our young people in the Ateyapi program and beyond, serving by example of a life dedicated to caring for his family, his people and his community. He doesn’t duck the tough issues, but meets them with patience and grace.” – from the nomination for Whitney Rencountre
Whitney Rencountre runs a program called Ateyapi. In Lakota, that translates to “fatherhood,” which is a concept that he takes very seriously – both at home with his four daughters, and at work, where he helps hundreds of Native American students stay the course. That’s because he knows what it’s like to walk in their shoes. Rencountre grew up on the Crow Creek Reservation. He recalls moving to Rapid City as a high school freshman and feeling lost.
“There were 1,000 freshmen in my class,” he recalled. “Coming from a reservation school to this school, it was culture shock to me. Just getting settled into the city and getting used to living here was a challenge for me. Especially coming from a boarding school in Crow Creek. We would wake up and just walk over to school and everything was right there on campus. In Rapid City, the school district does not provide transportation for high school students, so I had to ride public transportation or walk to school. A lot of times it was several miles just to get one way to school, and by the time I’d get to school, a lot of times I’d be late.”
Although it would have been easy for him to give up, Rencountre knew that he was meant for more than that. He was inspired by the hard work and love shown to him by his mother and grandparents. He knew he wanted to go to college, educate himself, and use that knowledge to make a positive impact on race relations in South Dakota.
Rencountre graduated from Black Hills State University and took a job teaching American Indian Studies. After a few years there, he accepted a job with Rural America Initiatives. Ateyapi is just one of RAI’s programs aimed at breaking the cycle of poverty for Native youth. The mentoring program is based out of Central High School, recently branching to Stevens and Rapid City high schools, as well.
“We have students that come from the reservation or anywhere else in the state and you can see it in their eyes, they don’t know who to trust,” explained Rencountre. “A lot of times they’ll either not come to school or they’ll drop out. But with Ateyapi we’re able to greet them and kind of show them a way to feel comfortable and help them through that process of adjusting to this big school.”
Read the full profile in the January issue or click here.