During the year-end holidays, when much of the RV industry was shut down and its massive employment base was, perhaps, enjoying some well-earned time off with family, a CEVA Logistics semi-tractor trailer left Forest River Inc.’s XLR toy hauler assembly plant in Goshen, Indiana, headed towards South Dakota.
Some 18 hours later, it pulled into the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation in the middle of a snowstorm. There members of the Oglala Lakota Sioux began unloading 18 pallets of jackets, blankets, bedding, electric fireplaces and more. For people on the reservation, the donations help them weather the winter in one of the coldest regions in America.
Like many charitable endeavors initiated or participated in by members of the RV industry, chances are that few if any of those on the reservation will ever own an RV. But as pointed out by XLR General Manager Brent Stevens, who created the “Warm Up the Ridge” program five years ago, “it’s not about selling RVs—it’s about helping people.”
And it all happened because of a painting.
When Stevens initially began collecting Native American artwork, he was driven by nothing more than a passion for the people and the symbolism captured by the artist. In the years since, however, his fondness for the work of David Humphrey Miller has grown well beyond simply collecting treasured paintings. Introduced to the work of Miller—who specialized in the culture of the Northern Plains Indians—by his grandfather, Stevens bought his first print in 2001 and eventually acquired more than 50 paintings and nearly 100 limited-edition prints by Miller.
Rather than tuck them away, however, he’s made them available to the public; Stevens’ collection is on permanent loan to the Wassenberg Art Center in Stevens’ hometown of Van Wert, Ohio—which also is where Miller grew up.
Along the way, he also began visiting places captured in Miller’s paintings, from the Crazy Horse Memorial to the people of the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation. And it was there that Stevens has made an even bigger impact.
“The survivors of the Battle of the Little Bighorn predominantly lived on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation back in the ’30s,” Stevens said. “Miller visited it and found 72 survivors of the battle. He painted them from life and became friends with them. So, when I started collecting his paintings, I became intimately involved, going out and visiting the Crazy Horse Memorial and Pine Ridge. I became good friends with the people at the memorial, and they told me about the living conditions at the reservation.”
According to official statistics, the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation has a poverty rate of 53.75 percent, though other assessments place it as high as 80 percent.
“I read where there are more than 2,300 counties in the United States,” Stevens noted. “Pine Ridge just might be the poorest of them all.”
As Stevens discovered when visiting the reservation, residents are on a government program that, among other things, provides propane.
“They have to pay for it, but when they get it, it only comes once a month,” Stevens said. “If you run out, well, that truck is not coming until it’s your time to get propane. There are people out there that will go for a week, sometimes two weeks, with no heat—but they have electricity. So, the thought was, if they could at least warm a room, they’d be able to keep themselves warm. The coats, the heaters and those types of things were a way for us to try to help mitigate some of that pain and suffering that they go through on the Ridge.”
The first year, Stevens brought out items in the back of his pickup truck. But as he began talking to friends in the industry, the donations grew. Last year, donations began coming in around Thanksgiving; at the end of the year, members of Stevens’ service group at XLR clocked out one afternoon and began sorting and sacking pallets which would eventually fill the CERV trailer.
Stevens credits a number of people for the growth of Warm Up the Ridge, including Lippert Components Inc. CEO Jason Lippert; LCI Vice President Andy Murray; Forest River Group General Manager Doug Gaeddert; WAY Interglobal Network President Wayne Kaylor; and John Reust from Forest River’s corporate office. “And we’re not talking about them in their professional positions,” Stevens pointed out. “They donated personally.
“I’ve had people ask me why I do it,” Stevens added. “Why there, when there are so many other things close to home that you could give to? I just tell them, ‘Well, you give to what you really are passionate about, and I’ll give to what I’m passionate about—and if we all do that, we’ll make the world a lot better place.’”