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Pine Ridge revival: Indian enterpreneurs at work

KYLE, S.D. ? Mona "Sissy" Patton owns a Lil' Angels convenience store in Kyle. It provides groceries, gasoline, snacks and treats and a place to congregate for the residents of Kyle. Patton started her work career at the Sioux Nation Shopping Center in Pine Ridge as a teenager. She said she went to work everyday after school.

Patton spent some years off the reservation and returned to open Lil' Angels, named after her daughter. That was 11 years and three expansions ago. The business still suffers from the lack of infrastructure. The only restroom facility is for the employees because its septic system is inadequate for the general public, she said. But that doesn't stop Patton.

She led the way to install sidewalks in Kyle, so the elderly could go for walks that are needed to help resist the disease diabetes. With her help Kyle now has a fire department with two trucks. The volunteer department raises money to keep the trucks functional by selling fishing worms in Patton's store. Now the work begins to finance a building to house the trucks.

That is why Patton is in Kyle ? she believes in the community.

To improve a community is to uplift the spirit of the community. A project to place a walking bridge in Kyle failed because a government entity didn't follow through. Patton said the National Guard had a walking bridge that would work, but things fell through between governments.

"A lot of change is scary to some people," she said.

Patton said that most people view economic development suspiciously. The tribal interest is more important than economic interest.

Patton says that tribal government should not be continually addressing crisis issues. She said that, on top of being financially strapped, the council has much to do in many areas and can't address all the pressing issues.

"The more people that get involved, the better the money will be utilized," Patton said. "There can be a lot of change when the people become more educated and tired of wanting money."

Lil' Angels employs 54 people, mostly part time. Patton said some people are single with children; the flexibility of part-time work, maybe 30 hours per week, works best for them.

"We work with them to make life good, not miserable. We need to count on people that know their jobs. We need to have good dependable workers," she said.

When her business first started, Patton said there was very little money. But with determination and family it worked.

Patton used the Oglala Lakota College carpentry program to build the building. She said she worked around any problems and the college students and local people helped with the store.

"I'm still viewed as being rich, but I put most of the money back into the store. People don't realize what a business can really do for a community," she said.

Patton looks to the future and anticipates the needs of the community. In addition to her support for the fire department and sidewalk, she also installed 24-hour gasoline service for Kyle.

Lil' Angels gives youth a chance to work and gain experience. "I give them an all-around experience," she said. Employees stock shelves, greet customers, work the cash registers and make some snacks and food for customers.

"I'm a role model for the youth. I don't drink alcohol or take drugs. All young people have hopes and dreams. They want to buy a used trailer to live in or a car. We also encourage them to go to college or get a GED. Education is part of employing young people," Patton said.

Patton employs some young people from the Youth Opportunities program on the reservation. It's a training program for her.

And what is her next project? A bowling alley, perhaps.

Besides the business, what does Patton want to see more than anything?

"I want to see the people come together to work for the fire department. We applied for the grant from the Empowerment Zone in 1999 and finally in 2002 we got the grant."