Eleven middle school and high school students earned a free trip to South Dakota this month, thanks to an incentive program sponsored by the Division of Youth Services in Tomah.

The five-day outing would serve as a reward for their performance in the classroom.

“It’s just an incentive for the kids in our program,” said Tomah Youth Coordinator Leland Bird. “Not many centers do this kind of thing. But we try to be different than the other centers, and do our own thing.”

Stops included Badlands National Park, Wind Cave National Park, Mt. Rushmore Memorial, Crazy Horse Memorial, Cosmos Mystery Area, Bear Country USA and the SPAM museum.

Each would offer a glimpse into our nation’s history that the students otherwise might not get.

“We like to get them out of their comfort zone,” Bird said, “out of their box – because all they know is Tomah, Blue Wing and Tomah kids. So we try to get them out of that box, and let them discover new people and places.”

According to Bird, the incentive program began five years ago with a camping trip to Mauston. After three years of pitching tents, though, the division set their sights on South Dakota.

Exclusive to this year’s trip was a visit to the Boys and Girls Club of Rosebud.

“This is the second year we visited South Dakota,” said Youth Coordinator Alicia Blackhawk. “And even though it’s meant to be an incentive for staying in school and keeping their grades up, we wanted to add in some community service this year as well.”

The group collected winter clothing, school supplies and baby products throughout the school year so that they could donate them to the club and the underserved reservation on which it sits.

Staff members said giving back to the community is a large part of their teachings.

“I think that’s important,” said Youth Coordinator Heidi Miles. “It gives them appreciation for what they have, and allows them to interact with kids from another area and see the similarities. I mean, you can look around and see the Rosebud version of each kid that we have.”

During their visit to the Boys and Girls Club, the Tomah students also spent much of their time interacting with the youth living just outside its doors – on the Rosebud Indian Reservation.

They would teach one another traditional games played by their tribe, such as Moccasins.

“It’s amazing how similar our children are to their children,” Miles said. “I guess it’s neat to see that, no matter where you go, people are still the same. They’re different, but they’re still the same.”

With some extra time, and a little leftover money, the group would spend its last night in a hotel. There, they were able to get some relief from the 90-degree heat that had joined them on the trip.

Despite all the heat and humidity, those that went said they would love to do it again next year.

Students attending this year’s trip included Thalia Nambo, Alexis Casarez, Savanah Blackhawk, Vanicia Blackhawk, Van Schwartz, Andrea Meers, Royce Roberts, Kierra Miles, Michael Miles, Breezy Mann and Kaidan Stewart.

Youth Service staff said they have not yet decided upon the destination for next year’s trip, but are considering traveling to South Dakota once again.

Anyone interested in attending should contact a member of the division at (608) 374-3960.