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Part 1
A father finds his way

Part 2
'He saves lives'

Part 3
'Heaven sent' in Badlands

Part 4
The healing touch

Part 5
AIDS is nun's calling

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The Boston Globe OnlineBoston.com Boston Globe Online / Metro | Region / Everyday Heroes
A five-part series
'Heaven sent' in Badlands

By Stan Grossfeld, Globe Staff, 6/20/2000

BENEFACTOR JOHN PAUL SULLIVAN of Hull with Lakota Indian Catherine White Mouse, 6, in South Dakota. (Globe Staff Photo / Stan Grossfeld)

* John Paul Sullivan photo gallery

Third of five parts

PINE RIDGE RESERVATION, S.D. - The ride from Hull, Mass., was hell.

They left home exhausted. No one helped them load the rented Ryder truck, not the South Shore church, which promised to send some helpers, not the neighbors. Nobody.

The first night, John Paul Sullivan and his two daughters drove all night, only pulling over for a while at a rest stop. Jammed three across in the front cab of the truck, they slept fitfully, either a steering wheel or an elbow in the way. The second night they slept in a cheap motel. The third night, they drove all night, finally arriving at a hotel near the Badlands. When they opened the back of the truck, a pile of teddy bears fell out.

This is the seventh year that Sullivan, a Bell Atlantic repairman, has driven a truckload of food, clothes, medicine, and toys to the Lakota Indians on the Pine Ridge Reservation. But it is the first time he has taken both his daughters - Lauren, 12, and Christie, 11.

A tired Sullivan shook his head and smiled. ''These kids are into wrestling, money-orientated violence, and I find that troublesome. But kids are kids. I can teach them, but I can't force them.''

As they drive through the Badlands, they finally enter Pine Ridge, part of Shannon County - the poorest place in America, according to US Census figures. The reservation is plagued by a lack of adequate housing, lack of industry, alcohol, and drugs. President Clinton, who visited Pine Ridge last year, called the 75 percent unemployment rate ''appalling.''

So why does Sullivan, who knows more about dial tones than diversity, send packages all year and spend at least $5,000 of his hard-earned money to spend Thanksgiving in the Lakota village of Wanblee?

''It's not like I woke up one day and said, `Today, I'm going to help the Lakota people,''' said Sullivan. ''Eight years ago I went into a store in Quincy and I put an Indian artifact on layaway for $60. A photo caught my attention. It was an ad to sponsor children out on Pine Ridge Reservation. I looked into their eyes and knew I would help these people.''

He didn't have any money, so he sold his Beatles CD collection, including a collector's item photo of a scally-capped John Lennon strolling on a Hyannis beach given to him by a friend.

For $75 a year, he sponsored 4-year-old Isabel Edith Marshall, who had four other brothers and sisters. ''I got her picture and sent her toys and candy and gum,'' he said. Then he started sending boxes of clothes. Eventually, he started renting a truck and driving out once a year.

''I have a feeling for all Native Americans, but my spirituality comes to this place in South Dakota,'' Sullivan said. ''It seems like this is where I'm supposed to be. I was half-kidding around and I told my friend here, Marian White Mouse, that perhaps I was an Indian warrior in a past life and she said, `Perhaps you were a white settler and killed Indians in your past life.'''

They have a nice relationship. She calls him the Great White Hope. He calls himself the Great White Dope.

Some people back home know what Sullivan does here and help him out. He receives donations from the local International Brotherhood of Electrical Workers, the Hingham Congregational Church Consignment Shop, the Fort Square church in Quincy, and coworkers at Bell Atlantic.

In the beginning, Sullivan recalled, he didn't know what he was doing.

''I loaded up this van and I felt like Mighty Mouse,'' he said. ''`Here I come to save the day.' Being naive, I arrived and saw this poverty. It was cold, and kids were running around with a minimum of clothes. I was shocked.''

Now it is Sullivan's children who are shocked, as they arrive in Wanblee. It is a ramshackle village of 250 people on the edge of the Badlands. As the yellow Ryder truck is spotted, shutters part, kids climb up on tree limbs and rusty cars and neighbors arrive unannounced at Marian White Mouse's house. The truck's contents will be off-loaded and stored at an undisclosed location until inventory can be taken and matched with a list of the neediest cases. This also prevents possible rioting, Sullivan said.

''One year I came in here and opened up the back of the truck and they came and looted the whole thing. I was really scared. But for some reason, I can't say no to these people. I've cried about how these once-proud people have ended up.''

White Mouse says Sullivan is making a difference. ''I think he's heaven sent,'' she said, giving him a hug.

Sullivan takes his daughters to see his sponsored child, Isabel, now 12, and her family. The visit is anticlimatic. Isabel barely talks, a half dozen men chain smoke cigarettes outside the door. The kitchen floor is flooded and an old woman stands in a puddle looking out the window at the moving clouds.

Sullivan seems upset by the dysfunctional family. ''It bothers me that they are so deprived that their poverty has impaired their social skills. Isabel is ashamed of her poverty.''

Sullivan's kids spend time playing with White Mouse's children, who are 12, 10, and 6, and by day's end, laughter fills the house. ''They don't want to leave,'' said Sullivan. ''You'd think they grew up together.''

Both Lauren and Christie come away with new friends and a new perspective. ''The houses, most of them are dirty, there are no stores, you don't need a driver's license to drive, and everybody is poor,'' said Lauren.

Before Sullivan leaves the reservation, the Lakota make him an honarary member of the tribe in a surprise ceremony. They tie an eagle feather in his hair, play a huge drum, and sing welcoming songs.

''It was intense. I said a prayer in Lakota,'' said Sullivan, reliving the moment later. ''It was better than getting coronated. Lauren was sobbing. I almost started crying. I went up to her and said, `You just learned the most important lesson in life - compassion.'''

This story ran on page A01 of the Boston Globe on 6/20/2000.
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