A Toy Drive Straight to the HeartAug 23, 2019 02:00PM ● By Sean McCarthy
Larry Dunn may be a soft-spoken guy, but physically, he exudes the traits that define outlaw country. His arms are covered in tattoos. His black T-shirt contrasts with his straw cowboy hat. Part Pete Seeger, part Henry Rollins, Dunn first discovered guitar as an alternative to sports.
"I was a skinny, dorky kid. It seemed like a way that I might meet a girl,” Dunn says.
After memorizing “intro to guitar” standards from the likes of AC/DC, a friend introduced Dunn to the rock-and-roll band The Blasters. Their straightforward musicianship and working-class lyrics resonated with Dunn.
“As soon as I heard it, I knew that it was for me,” Dunn says.
For nearly three decades, Dunn has played his brand of hardscrabble, propulsive country music. People are more likely to know him by his stage name, Lash LaRue.
However, to hundreds of Lakota children living on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota, he is best known for his charity. His organization, Toy Drive for Pine Ridge, provides toys for the children on the Pine Ridge Reservation over the holidays.
Dunn’s first major exposure to Lakota culture was in his early 30s when he took a one-night class at Metropolitan Community College on Lakota spirituality. The class was taught by Wendell Bird Head. Dunn says Bird Head invited him to participate in a sweat lodge ceremony. After that, Dunn began traveling to the Pine Ridge Reservation on a regular basis and learning the Lakota language.
“I’m very much aware that I’m a guest there…and I’ve been able to see and do things most people haven’t,” Dunn says. “I take that privilege and honor very seriously.”
Oglala Lakota County (formerly Shannon County), the area that includes Pine Ridge Reservation, ranks as the poorest county in the United States according to the American Community Survey. A 2018 U.S. Census estimate indicated almost 42 percent of residents live in poverty. The individual yearly per capita income is less than $9,400. By contrast, the same report listed the average yearly individual per capita income of someone living in Douglas county at around $30,000. The same report found that more than 37 percent of those living in Oglala Lakota County are under the age of 18.
Around 2003, Dunn heard of a group from Colorado that organized a toy drive for Pine Ridge. He felt that he could do the same thing in Omaha.
“It’s the cliched musician thing. I came back and thought ‘I’m going to put on a show and see if we can get some toys and take them up there,’” Dunn says.
The first show was in 2003 at Mick’s Music Bar (now The Sydney). Five acoustic acts played, and $500 was raised. Dunn and a few of his friends loaded a friend’s pickup with toys and delivered them to Pine Ridge.
Sixteen years later, a pickup truck no longer suffices for what Dunn’s organization collects during the holidays. Instead of one concert, the nonprofit organization now hosts concerts in Des Moines and Lincoln as well as Omaha. With five bands playing per show, Dunn guesses he coordinates schedules with roughly 100 musicians. He says he begins ramping up for the toy drive in August. Last year, he played 13 shows for the drive. “By the time Thanksgiving is over, this is my whole world,” Dunn says.
Dunn now takes a donated 24-foot truck to Pine Ridge about a week before Christmas with all the collected toys. Sometimes fellow musicians will ride up with him. Others will help load the truck.
“I may have had the first idea, but if it weren’t for all of these people, it would be me, one G.I. Joe, and one Barbie going up there.”
Dunn says he knows a toy drive won’t solve the problems of poverty for many families on Pine Ridge. However, he points to stories like one girl who received a giant teddy bear one year. A few weeks later, the girl wrote Dunn to thank him, and told him the bear “takes away my nightmares.” Dunn says he tells that story to anyone who tells him that “toys don’t solve anything.”
Getting the toys to Pine Ridge Reservation hasn’t always been easy. In 2009, the rental truck he was driving had a mechanical problem; it wouldn’t go above 35 mph. As the truck limped its way to its destination, a blizzard rolled in, reducing visibility to mere feet from Dunn’s windshield. The toys made it, but on the return trip Dunn heeded the advice of the rental truck agency and abandoned the truck in Gordon, Nebraska. He hitched a ride back to Omaha with one of the volunteers following his truck.
For the toy drive, Dunn coordinates with schools throughout Pine Ridge. Toys are brought into the schools, and children from kindergarten through eighth grade are given the opportunity to select one toy. Our Lady of Lourdes Elementary School in Porcupine, South Dakota, is one of the participating schools. In a phone interview, Principal Theresa Lessert says some children use their one gift to either give to their sibling, or pick a game the entire family can play.
Lessert will sometimes talk with Dunn in advance about a family that is going through an especially hard time. One year, she told him about a family who lost their father shortly before Christmas. She says Dunn made sure each child from the family received a box full of toys.
“His generosity is just unbelievable,” Lessert says. “He’s been a godsend to many of our children.”
Along with the toy drive, Dunn has started a propane relief fund for Pine Ridge residents. Part of the drive’s proceeds go toward supplying propane to those in need.
Karen Red Star, director of the Oglala Sioux Tribe Health Education Program, collects a list of names of those who require heat assistance. In a phone interview, Red Star says she has known people on the reservation who have died during the winter because of lack of access to heat.
“We’re all desperate [out here], but there are some that are even more desperate,” Red Star says.
Red Star says Dunn’s organization donates the funds directly to the propane supplier, Lakota Plains Propane. Red Star estimates the Toy Drive helped more than 80 families with their heat last year.
“[The families] are so grateful,” Red Star says. “They really appreciate[d] all the help that they got.”
Dunn’s organization has received corporate grants from Ebay and Paypal. However, he estimates that almost 95% of contributions come from individual $10 donations.
“That’s something I’m most proud of,” Dunn says.
For more information, visit toydriveforpineridge.org.This article was printed in the September 2019 edition of Omaha Magazine. To receive the magazine, click here to subscribe.