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Sunday concert provides needed funding, honors veterans
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About 200 people gathered at First United Methodist Church on Sunday during a patriotic concert that honored nine veterans and raised money for the Church of Hope.

Church of Hope Pastor Sharon Ball said the last concert during Christmas raised nearly $4,000 for her church, which provides services to the South Dakota Women’s Prison’s inmates. With offering plates at the church’s sanctuary entrances filled with donations, Ball said she was confident the “In Concert for America” event would also succeed.

Unlike most congregations that can raise money for church services directly from its members, Church of Hope relies on outside congregations to pitch in since its members cannot. Concert vocalist Jeff Speaect said this was around the fifth concert to help raise funds for them. He said bad weather and the coronavirus pandemic threw them curveballs in the past that led to concert cancellations.

Jorge Encinas / Jorge Encinas / Capital Journal 

Jeff Speaect provided the vocals during the patriotic concert on Sunday at First United Methodist Church.

Ball took the reins as Church of Hope’s pastor in December but said it began 25 years ago and marked its anniversary this month. Church of Hope is a mission church under the supervision of the American Baptist Churches USA.

Ball said the church planned to celebrate its 25th anniversary at the Women’s Prison, but the last time she checked the inmate count, there were about 500 women in the facility.

“We really kind of needed to have it in the gymnasium, in a larger space,” she said. “But in the gymnasium, I don’t know. There are 40-45 women in there now — overflow — because there’s not enough room in the cell blocks. So, we’re postponing the birthday party.”

The American Baptist Churches in North and South Dakota send contributions to the Church of Hope, but Ball said funds from concerts like the one on Sunday at First United Methodist help cover their costs, including her salary, services and other materials they provide the women in prison.

“There’s a Christmas benefit concert as well as a patriotic benefit concert,” she said. “I had just been here, I don’t know, a week, 10 days and they had the Christmas concert, and it was just delightful. All the decorations, all the music.”

Ball laughed and said she didn’t like to describe it as “magical,” but that was how she summed it up. And Sunday’s patriotic concert with Quilts of Valor presentation also marked another first in the community for Ball, who came to Pierre from Tulsa, Oklahoma.

“That was great,” she said. “What a neat, neat thing to honor the veterans, and the timing is perfect.”

While the Church of Hope benefit had always been part of the Christmas and patriotic concerts, Speaect said the Quilts of Valor came later.

“It’s just an honor,” he said about getting to provide vocals for the concert. “And it was awesome today to have so many veterans. To see the service that they offered to all of us and get to honor them back was a privilege.”

Jorge Encinas / photos by Jorge Encinas / Capital Journal 

Attendees at the patriotic concert on Sunday begin rising to applaud veterans after Charlene Sundstrom, center, closes out the Quilt of Valor awarding ceremony.

Quilter Charlene Sundstrom said the local quilters began making Quilts of Valor in 2018 and distributed 85 to veterans since then. She said the 20 quilters do a mix of making their own and using a production line method, but Sundstrom added that the quilts the veterans receive are one of a kind.

Veterans receive nominations for quilts, which Sundstrom said she keeps anonymous since some nominees initially requested it. Now she maintains that anonymity as a standard practice for everyone. After receiving a nomination, they begin the awarding process.

“Once we get a nomination, we contact the veteran and visit with them a little bit and see if they want one first of all — not every veteran does,” Sundstrom said. “Our only requirement is that the veteran must be touched by war or was somehow touched by war even if he didn’t serve in a war, he was affected by a war in some way. And the veterans are very honest when they say, ‘I don’t feel like I deserve one,’ and then we just back off.”

On Sunday, nine veterans from different eras received quilts near the concert’s end.

Jorge Encinas / Jorge Encinas / Capital Journal 

Pierre resident Bob McDonald receiving his Quilt of Valor on Sunday at United Methodist Church. He served in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army from 1974 to 2016, with combat deployments to Iraq and Afghanistan.

Pierre resident Bob McDonald did dual service, with time spent in the U.S. Navy and U.S. Army. McDonald wrapped up his service in 2016, leaving with the rank of sergeant major. McDonald served in multiple places in Iraq from 2003-05 and then in Kandahar, Afghanistan, in 2013.

“I was honored that somebody nominated me. They didn’t tell me who it was, but it came as a surprise,” McDonald said. “It was a nice ceremony. It was a great honor.”

Casa Grande, Arizona, resident and Army veteran Bruce Stevens also received a quilt. The timing worked out well for Stevens, who returned to Pierre for his high school reunion. The Pierre native graduated from T.F. Riggs High School in 1967.

Stevens served in Chu Lai, Vietnam, with the 123rd aviation battalion, working as a helicopter mechanic and providing support as a door gunner. Stevens served in the Army from 1968 to 1977 and left with the rank of sergeant.

“I was absolutely dumbfounded. It was a blindside,” Stevens said about finding out he received a nomination. “I feel very honored, extremely honored.”

After the ceremony, Stevens stood surrounded by his family living in Pierre, including his brother Don Stevens, sister Roberta Newman and her husband, Stan Newman.

“It was totally amazing,” Roberta said about seeing her brother receive a quilt during the concert. “It brought goosebumps. I’m so proud of him, you know.”


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Dems meet in Ft. Pierre for state convention

In a state where Republicans outnumber the Democrats 2-to-1, U.S. Sen. candidate Brian Bengs knows his chances aren’t the best.

A lifelong Independent from Aberdeen, Bengs is running as a Democrat against three-term Republican incumbent John Thune from Murdo in the Nov. 8 General Election.

“John Thune has $16 million in backing from special interests and I do not,” Bengs told the Capital Journal after attending the 2022 State Convention of the South Dakota Democratic Party. It was held at Drifters Bar & Grille in Fort Pierre over the weekend.

“The path to victory lies with the independents,” Bengs, who is making his first bid for public office, said.

As of July 1, South Dakota had 289,182 Republicans and 150,680 Democrats. Another 141,066 are Independents or do not have a party affiliation, according to Secretary of State Steve Barnett.

Retired from the U.S. Air Force JAG Corps and a former assistant professor of criminal justice at Northern State University, Bengs hopes to get elected by “offering something different.”

“That’s what I have to do,” he said. “That’s the way the system works. The system is designed to steer people into one of the two major parties.”

Bengs said he’s concerned about the future of the country and the best place for a firewall is in the senate.

“The Democrats in the senate are the most influential in how the government is run,” the 51-year-old said. “Your voice is the loudest in the senate.”

He’s campaigning on democracy.

“Our government is corrupted by money,” Bengs said. “I can see how deep the corruption goes.”

He supports getting money out of politics and trying to protect the function of democracy.

“The middle class has been getting the shaft with choices that are made,” Bengs said.

The Democrats nominated the following during the convention:

Jennifer Keintz of Eden for lieutenant governor after gubernatorial candidate Jamie Smith, a state representative from Sioux Falls, tapped Keintz as his running mate last week. She serves in the state House for District 1, which includes Brown, Day, Marshall and Roberts counties. Smith and Keintz will face Republican incumbent Kristi Noem and Larry Rhoden as well as Libertarian candidate Tracey Quint and Ashley Strand.

Tom Cool of Sioux Falls, a former journalist who ran for state auditor in 2018, is running for secretary of state. Cool will go up against Monae Johnson, who has worked in the secretary of state’s office for eight years.

John Cunningham of Sioux Falls for state treasurer. Cunningham will go up against incumbent Josh Haeder, who has been the treasurer since January 2019.

Outgoing Minnehaha County Commissioner Jeff Barth of Sioux Falls for public utilities commissioner. He will run against incumbent commissioner Chris Nelson.

Stephanie Marty, a Sioux Falls area Air Force veteran, will run for state auditor against incumbent Rich Sattgast.


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State’s lowest earners feel inflation most
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When Tyson Wade of Britton, South Dakota, moved to Sioux Falls in 2021, he never expected that even with a steady job, he would struggle financially and be on the verge of homelessness.

But like everyone in South Dakota and across the U.S., Wade is enduring the effects of stubborn economic inflation that is driving up costs for basic necessities and which is having a much larger impact on young adults in entry-level positions, people with low-wage jobs or those who live on fixed incomes.

Wade, 20, works as an overnight stocker at a Hy-Vee grocery store. When he moved to the city, he signed a lease for an apartment in northeast Sioux Falls with two roommates, splitting the $900 monthly rent payment three ways. Recently, each roommate’s share of the rent increased by $50 per month — a smaller jump than many other renters across the state have seen but still a burdensome new cost.

Yet in addition to increased rent, Wade is paying significantly more for groceries, utilities and other necessary goods than even a few months ago. His grocery bill has gone up the most, nearly doubling in recent months from about $80 to $140 per month.

“Meats are the biggest thing; they’re around $7.29 now per pound,” Wade said. “Paper towels, toilet paper, that stuff’s all gone up at least a dollar.”

While gas costing nearly $5 a gallon may be a big-budget expense for many South Dakotans, Wade is unable to drive due to an eye condition that affects his vision. Fuel and car insurance aren’t on his list of bills, but lack of transportation also decreases his housing options.

Wade is now looking for an alternative living situation, but he and a potential roommate were denied a new application at his current apartment complex due to income restrictions.

“You have to make over three times rent, so we couldn’t sign a new lease,” he said.

Wade asked whether a co-signer could help secure the lease, but the apartment manager said a co-signer had to have a minimum 680 credit score or make well more than three times the monthly rent, which will be difficult for Wade to pull off.

“We’re hoping we’ll be able to find a cosigner, otherwise I won’t be living here anymore,” he said.

Wade isn’t the only South Dakotan faced with unexpected costs and hard choices. With the national inflation rate at 8.6 percent, and the Midwest inflation rate at 8.8 percent in late June, the cost of living is rising fast and many people are scrambling to keep up.

Food costs have gone up 12 percent in South Dakota, leading many to change their food budgets and causing some people on the economic margins to seek help providing food for themselves or their families.

Many communities have public food banks or distribution services available for those who may need assistance in securing food. The group Feeding South Dakota, a statewide provider of charitable food, is partnering with some local communities with a “mobile food pantry” to serve the growing need. Feeding South Dakota has permanent food bank locations in Sioux Falls and Rapid City, but the organization’s website also allows users to find mobile options closest to them.

Many other localized organizations also give out food to those in need. First Families Now, based in Porcupine, South Dakota, serves needy residents of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.

The group also runs donation drives to provide essential items such as heaters and blankets, clothing, and school supplies along with many other programs. The group is working to bring more resources to the communities it serves, including providing a tutor for local children, offering various activity classes, and focusing on healthy lifestyles and healing, Executive Director Alice Phelps said.

Phelps said the group continues to provide food and help to families in need, but has recently seen a drop in donations and people willing to donate as inflation has continued to push costs higher for everyone.

“I used to get a lot of monetary checks and stuff as well to help out, and I don’t hardly get anything like that anymore,” Phelps said. “The donation load has seemed to lighten up as well. When we give out food boxes, they’re not as full as they used to be because I want to make sure that we spread it out evenly.”

Increasing transportation costs — both in regard to high gas prices and in higher costs to buy a vehicle — are also adding difficulty to the lives of those on low or fixed incomes in South Dakota. With gas prices nearly doubled from a year ago, people in the communities served by First Families Now aren’t able to come to distribution events, preventing families from accessing the resources they need.

“Those who can’t come in, then we have my sons who go out into communities,” she said. “There’s many people who are really, really, really poor. They don’t even have furniture in their house, much less food, so we try to make sure we transport stuff out there to them.”

Phelps said that First Families Now is also in the planning stages of building “tiny homes” for those in need of safe, affordable homes to address the housing challenges that have been made worse by inflation on South Dakota reservations.

Across the state, housing has become more expensive with the rise in inflation, leaving some residents with few affordable options and others unable to afford a home or rent an apartment.

Section 8 Housing Choice Vouchers are an option available to qualifying low-income families in some locations. These vouchers are funded by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development and are awarded by local housing agencies. At this time, 23 local agencies operate across the state to provide help through the voucher program. Twenty-six others provide affordable housing options through public housing programs.

Childcare is another necessity for many South Dakota families, and it has recently become tougher to obtain or maintain. Many childcare providers in South Dakota are in-home or small operations, and they have also faced higher costs for providing services to parents and children.

Shipping costs of products have also become more expensive, leading to higher costs of commodities like food, wipes and infant formula. Often, those higher costs are passed on to customers who may already face difficulty in paying for child care necessary to care for children while keeping a job.

Nicole Jones, who runs BumbleBee Daycare in Marshall County, South Dakota, said she has faced increases in groceries and water and electric bills. These added expenses, coupled with shortages of many goods and supplies, have led to losses in new registrations and reduced operating hours for many childcare facilities in the state.

“We’re losing some kids because of everything going up in price, and people aren’t willing to pay [for childcare] because they can’t afford it,” Jones said.


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