Couple's tradition helps build community bonds
WAGNER, S.D. (AP) – As Wagner school counselor at the time, Dana Sanderson watched more than two dozen staff members leave the district – all at once – nearly a decade ago.
In response, Sanderson threw a party, but it wasn't a farewell party, the Yankton Daily Press & Dakotan .
Instead, he and wife Brenda started the annual tradition of hosting an invitation-only backyard barbecue. The guest list included newcomers to the community as well as people who were positive and had made a difference in people's lives.
It's all part of Dana Sanderson's effort to make people feel welcome and connected to Wagner. The Charles Mix County community of 1,600 people includes a large Yankton Sioux population.
"We've been doing this (supper) for six or seven years," Dana said. "It started back when about 30 people left the school system. You have to change that situation or it'll affect the district. You have to do something so it doesn't happen again."
Sanderson didn't think the exodus arose from negative incidents or feelings. In fact, he saw many positive – and often unrecognized – things happening all around him. He just thought holding the barbecue would tighten community bonds.
The Sandersons' latest get-together occurred this week, as more than 100 people gathered in the couple's back yard. However, it wasn't a typical potluck or barbecue.
"We provided the food, although people were welcome to bring something from their garden. But everyone was required to work together in making the meal," Dana said.
"When we started tonight, this place was so loud, like a giant chicken coop. People were so noisy and so busy working together on some part of the supper. There were so many jobs they could pick, and there was no designated leader. It was all up to them."
The guests reflected Wagner's diversity. Yankton Sioux tribal chairman Robert Flying Hawk attended, as did other tribal members. Other guests included business owners, educators and farmers.
Natives and non-Natives worked side by side in creating the meal, whether it was tending to the pork loin and bratwurst, shucking corn or making salads.
"We had Jodi Zephier teaching one group how to make (Native American) fry bread, while the next station was making kolaches (a Czech pastry). We even had people making cobblers in a Dutch oven," Brenda Sanderson said with a chuckle.
A combo, led by Vince Two Eagles, played background music. People of diverse backgrounds – different ages, jobs and incomes as well as race – talked and sat in lawn chairs. Children played on a swing set in the back yard.
It's a scene many people outside Wagner don't realize, Dana Sanderson said.
He retired in 2015 after a 40-year education career, most of it in Wagner. While he knows the community well, he also knows what it's like to move to an area where you don't know anybody and don't easily fit into groups.
"I came here clearly as an outsider. I was a white person who came here as a counselor for an (American) Indian program," he said. "I really wasn't part of either the Native American or white communities."
Sanderson also arrived at Wagner in the 1970s, which was a time of racial turmoil in many areas involving Natives and non-Natives. However, he reached out and made friends with people of diverse races and backgrounds.
"I wanted to do something positive, to make something better. I saw (Wagner) as an opportunity to make a difference," he said. "You can sit on the sidelines and watch the game, or you can get in the game and make some kind of impact."
Sanderson realized that students of all backgrounds shared common needs.
"We have a lot of good kids in Wagner," he said. "They just want someone to listen and shown an interest in their lives."
One of the most memorable moments came when two Native American youths approached him on the street. At the time, he felt that somehow he hadn't reached them in his work at school.
"They asked me if it was true that I was leaving Wagner," he said. "I told them, no, that I was staying. And they said, `Good, we don't want you to leave.' They told me how much I had touched their lives and meant to them."
The encounter provided him with the sign he was seeking on which path to take in life. The young men's encouragement, along with the large loss of school staff, also showed him the need for reaching out to others – particularly new teachers – and letting them know their importance to others.
Thus, the Sanderson supper was born.
"I wanted to invite new people so that they knew somebody. Actually, the hardest part was finding them," he said. "I started putting out the word."
The first supper drew about 30 people. This year's meal attracted more than 100 guests, with another 40 or 50 who couldn't attend.
Dana insists on the personal touch when extending invitations.
"It would be fast and easy to send a text or email," he said. "But I want to explain to the person why they're being invited. I also want them to invite one person who has made a difference in their lives. It's the invitation that makes the meal so special."
One woman came in person to explain why she couldn't attend, Brenda added.
The mix of guests changes each year, keeping the event fun and stimulating, Brenda said.
"Usually, when you get together, it's pretty predictable who's going to be there," she said. "But that's the thing with our supper – you have no idea who's going to be there."
Wagner school superintendent Linda Foos pointed out that the barbecue provides something missing in today's society.
"We've lost the front porch, where people pass by and we wave to each other," she said. "Things like this (barbecue) bring the front porch back."
Foos has seen school enrollment grow as more young couples stay in Wagner or move to the community. The incoming kindergarten and junior kindergarten classes are expected to reach 100 students.
"Family is important to people here in Wagner," she said.
In addition, Foos isn't surprised by the diverse mix of guests at the Sandersons' supper. As superintendent, she attends Yankton Sioux tribal council meetings four times a year. In addition, she has built a friendship with Flying Hawk and other tribal members.
"This place (Wagner) gets your heart. Its diversity makes it a special place," she said. "Dana has done an awesome job of finding interesting ways to unite people. Events like this (supper) just make things better."
Two Eagles agreed. Besides his work as a musician and writer, he serves with the Wagner Area Horizons Team which battles racism.
"This (supper) is a great opportunity for Native and non-Natives to come together," he said.
Melanie Best, a newcomer to Wagner, said she appreciated the Sandersons' invitation. She graduated from Augustana University in Sioux Falls and has joined the Wagner school staff as a teacher.
"This is really nice," she said. "I've moved to a lot of places, and I've never been invited to something like this. It's nice to get together."
The supper also meant a great deal to people already living in Wagner.
Joe and Brenda Jaton purchased the MidTowne gas station a year ago. They had been seeking a business opportunity, and Brenda (Kokesh) had grown up in Wagner.
"We live two blocks away (from the gas station)," Brenda said, pointing down the street to their home.
And while Brenda already knew her hometown, Joey also found the town much to his liking.
"Wagner is a community that is always trying to put something on," he said. "We have the (car) races, the Labor Day celebration and the Farm and Home Show."
With its location near the Missouri River, Wagner attracts a number of visitors, Joey said. The visitors boost the local economy, and a number of them decide to make Wagner home, he added.
That's where the Sandersons' party plays such an important role, Brenda said.
"If a person moves here, we may not meet them (socially) right away," she said. "Dana and Brenda are so welcoming, and this (barbecue) is one way of reaching out to people."
The Jatons visited with Wagner economic development director Kelsey Doom. A number of people at the barbecue referred to Doom as the town's cheerleader, always promoting the community in a number of ways.
Doom, who grew up in Wagner, said it's part of her roots and not because of her job. She pointed to the Sandersons' barbecue as one reason she's proud to call Wagner home.
"This is an impressive number of people who came here tonight," she said. "This really builds community and creates new bonds. People feel a connection and develop roots."
As a result, the business community has boomed, Doom said. "The first year I was in this job, we had three ribbon cuttings. This year, we had six ribbon cuttings in 60 days, and they're all new businesses," she said.
Wagner businessman Jeff Doom, Kelsey's father, echoed those positive thoughts about the community's self-image.
"The business scene here (in Wagner) is on fire," he said. "A lot of it is because people have a good attitude and feel good about what's going on here."
In that respect, Jeff Doom credited Dana Sanderson for his work.
"Dana retired and could have just rode off into the sunset," Doom said. "But he stayed involved in the community and kept this annual party going."
Sanderson modestly defers any credit, saying he's only paying forward the kindness he has encountered in Wagner through the years. That's why he emphasizes bringing someone to the supper who has made a difference in your life.
"This is a chance to say something nice to somebody and invite them to the supper," he said. "When people do that, I get what I want."
Information from: Yankton Press and Dakotan, http://www.yankton.net/