Job program urged to fight woes

Published Friday December 11, 2009
BY PAUL HAMMEL
OMAHA WORLD-HERALD

LINCOLN — Creating jobs in Whiteclay, Neb., would help solve the alcohol-related woes of the “skid row of the prairie,” says a man who runs a thrift store and soup kitchen in the unincorporated border town.

Bruce BonFleur said he plans to open a mini-mall with five or six Lakota-owned businesses next month in Whiteclay.

Liquor stores in the northwest Nebraska town have been blamed for contributing to the rampant alcoholism on the officially dry Pine Ridge Indian Reservation across the state line in South Dakota.

Whiteclay’s four liquor stores sell about 3.2 million cans of beer a year, mostly to reservation residents.

BonFleur, in an interview Thursday, said that given a choice, the approximately 40 street people who beg for money and beer outside Whiteclay businesses would chose sobriety and work over another drink.

BonFleur, a 57-year-old Florida native, said God called him to minister to the suffering street people of Whiteclay. He said he hopes the state would help him create more jobs.

“Whiteclay is a gold mine smothered in beer,” BonFleur said.

He will be among the people testifying this afternoon before the Legislature’s General Affairs Committee, which is studying the impact of alcohol sales in Whiteclay, which has drawn national attention.

A job creation program in Whiteclay would be a relatively new approach to the problem.

Past efforts have had only limited success. They were focused on increasing law enforcement in the town, which has no police force, or shutting down the liquor stores, which state officials have said are operating within the law.

BonFleur and his wife, Marsha, opened the 555 Thrift Store on Whiteclay’s main street five years ago. They distribute clothing and nearly 8,000 free meals a year from a soup kitchen they operate with the local Hands of Faith Ministry.

With about $6,000 in donations, BonFleur’s organization is now helping a handful of small Lakota-owned businesses open after Jan. 1. The 555 Whiteclay Mall will include a machine-quilting operation, a silk-screening outlet and a Lakota craft store.

Some of the town’s existing businesses, which include two grocery stores and a couple of cafes, already hire street people for temporary chores, he said.

It is hoped that the new businesses provide long-term jobs — jobs that BonFleur said would prompt street people to give up alcohol.

“They will stay sober about as long as we provide them a job,” he said.

State Sen. Colby Coash of Lincoln, who was among a group of state officials who visited Whiteclay in March, said BonFleur has an intriguing idea.

“People without hope need work, they need opportunity,” Coash said. “If there’s something the state can do, we should.”

Mark Vasina of Lincoln, who produced a documentary film on the Whiteclay woes, said BonFleur is doing terrific work.

But it will take better law enforcement and closing down the liquor stores, along with improved job prospects, to clean up the town.

“We have to look at the whole picture and do a whole variety of things,” Vasina said.

BonFleur, who relies on donations and income from the thrift shop to finance his ministry, agreed that the problems in Whiteclay are multifaceted.

He said the trash and human excrement on the streets need to be cleaned up to create a better environment for businesses.

Whiteclay’s location, at the southern entrance to a vast reservation and a short drive for about 10,000 reservation residents, makes it ideal for Lakota craft shops and other enterprises, he said.

If he could attract more donations or aid from the state, he could do even more than his minimall, BonFleur said.

“I’d love to have $10,000. We could move quickly on some things.”

Contact the writer:  402-473-9584, paul.hammel@owh.com

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