November 30, 2020

Building bridges: Student starts exchange program to bring cultures together

The first time Webster University freshman Joshua Krakos went to Dupree, South Dakota with the Sioux YMCA, he met a four-year-old girl named August. After dropping a water balloon on August’s head, as a part of a game, he discovered severe lice in her hair. The only hospital was 45 minutes away and had eight beds.

A member of his team had basic medical training and they treated the lice as best they could. August held Krakos’ hand through the ordeal and never saw her again after that.

Four years later, during Krakos’ service in the Marines, his mother sent him a photo from Dupree with August. She made him a necklace for his mother to give him. He keeps the necklace in his dorm at Webster.

Since then, Krakos started Bridge Builders STL (BBSTL), a non-profit focused on exchanging programs between cultures to empower, educate and enact its team members. This summer, a team of 13 students from Webster University, Affton High School and Meramec Community College will travel to Dupree for a week to learn about the Lakota community. Twelve students from the Lakota Reservation will come back to St. Louis to learn about the culture for a week.

Krakos started volunteering in Dupree with the Sioux YMCA in 2015 and decided to bring a similar program to Webster University when he got accepted.

“The idea isn’t just St. Louis helping Dupree, we’re a community and it goes both ways,” Krakos said. “Quite often, we find that when we are interacting with another community much like the Lakota Reservation, we end up finding things out about ourselves and our own communities that we like to interact with and change ourselves.”

Last year’s BBSTL exchange group explores Forest Park to show the Dupree YMCA life in St. Louis. Nonprofit President Joshua Krakos said that one of BBSTL’s goals is to expose students to cultures that are not their own. Photo contribution by Joshua Krakos

Krakos said the goal of this two-week fully immersive program, is to start a dialogue and build connections between the two communities to learn about one another and recognize the problems in each community.

This is the second year Webster University partnered with BBSTL to host students for a week in the summer. Dean of Students, John Buck, said building this partnership came naturally once Krakos reached out to him.

“You’ve got a guy dedicated in his head and his heart to these kids, how can you not be moved by that?” Buck said. “The kind of drive [Krakos] has has really been inspiring to me and the kids too. We had the opportunity to come together and I had to find a way to collaborate with [this] program that has the potential to make a big impact.”

Buck said part of the reason this partnership is so important is because it gives the students from the Lakota reservation a chance to see what a university looks like and realize that it is a possibility for them.

According to Data USA, the unemployment rate in Dupree is anywhere between 75 and 95 percent. The graduation rate is 36 percent and in 2017 there were between two and three suicide attempts per week of kids under 18 on the reservation of 8,000 people.

“There’s lots of ways that a student can see a university as an option,” Buck said. “When you get them younger they can see [college] as a vision for themselves. The impact of someone seeing that and then being able to pursue a college degree is, I mean, you can’t underestimate how powerful that is.”

Katharine Parsons, head of the women, gender and sexuality studies program at Webster will be leading the team this summer and facilitating the team discussions at the end of each day of the program both in Dupree and St. Louis.

She said one of the reasons she decided to become a part of BBSTL was how the program set itself apart from other non-profit exchange programs.

“[At first] I was a little concerned that it was sort of more like a mission trip and I was not interested in something like that,” Parsons said. “[BBSTL] defines itself in terms of a genuine cultural exchange trying to enhance and ensure learning from both sides.”

Krakos said the BBSTL team worked hard to make sure the program is respectful of all cultures and persons involved.

“We worked very diligently to not allowing for any sort of idea of toxic charity or savior complex, or any other mindset that could be detrimental to the communities involved,” Krakos said.

“We’re not paying people to go into another community and do missionary evangelist work to try and fix all their problems,” Phillips said. “We’re not trying to [act] like we know everything. The mission is to go to another culture and learn as much as [possible] and empower those individuals in that community and say, ‘we want to help you preserve your culture and do things alongside you.’”

On April 27, BBSTL will hold its second annual 5K Fun Run for Dupree at Affton High School. There will be the opportunity to win raffle baskets from local St. Louis companies like Urban Chestnut and the Missouri Botanical Garden.

Art from Webster University students will be on display and for sale as well. All proceeds will go directly to BBSTL’s second St. Louis-Dupree Exchange Program. Krakos said he sees the race as more than just a fundraising opportunity.  

“We want to facilitate growth within our own community, as well as working and connecting other communities around the country and hopefully around the world one day,” Krakos said.

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