Eye on KELOLAND: A legacy of compassion

Eye on KELOLAND

SIOUX FALLS, S.D. (KELO) — A project underway in Sioux Falls is meant to spur on more compassion in the community.

It won’t be long before a big, bronze dove will be nestled right along the Big Sioux River.

The Compassion Project announced the new sculpture in downtown Sioux Falls late last year.

The inspiration for the project is the late Fern Chamberlain, a longtime social worker in South Dakota.

Chamberlain worked in Pierre from the late 30s to the mid 60s.

The mother of one then moved to Sioux Falls.

“She adopted a young boy in Pierre who was profoundly deaf, and she was allowed to adopt him as a single woman, which was of course pretty unusual back then,” Fern Chamberlain’s friend Gloria Houle said.

Gloria Houle and Chamberlain met in the 70s.

Houle’s first memory of working with Chamberlain was through the League of Women Voters, but the two continued to work together beyond that.

“She was always very kind, but you knew when she meant business,” Houle said.

Throughout her career in Sioux Falls, Chamberlain wrote grants for different organizations and helped start a Sioux Falls food pantry and what’s now called Active Generations.

Additionally, Chamberlain founded what’s known today as the Helpline Center.

“She saw the need for a call center that could provide resource information for individuals, and so that was kind of the premise of it. In addition during that time, the Wounded Knee trials were being held here in the Minnehaha County Courthouse and there was a lot of misinformation that was circulating,” Helpline Center executive director Janet Kittams said.

Helpline Center executive director and Compassion Project chair, Janet Kittams, says part of the initial grant for the center was to be a rumor control hotline to answer questions during the trials.

Pauline Poletes, who was also part of the League of Women Voters, volunteered to answer phones for the center.

“We met, and she said, ‘Here’s what we have to do.’ The Indian trials were starting and she said, ‘We need to help the families coming, and here’s what we have.’ And she had the basement of Augustana where they could be headquartered for the Information Center,” Fern Chamberlain’s friend Pauline Poletes said.

Poletes says Chamberlain was wonderful at mobilizing people.

“I give Fern credit for giving me the chance and giving me the guts to go ahead and do some of the projects I’ve worked on throughout the years,” Poletes said.

“She would call people and say, ‘Would you call your legislators and tell them you’d really like to support that legislation or oppose that legislation?'” Houle said.

Chamberlain died in 2011 at the age of 99, but her compassionate spirit for those in need lives on today through others.

“It continues, and there are still people working so hard to help the lower income and the minorities,” Poletes said.

“Fern is an example of how one person can make a difference, not only in a community, but in individuals’ lives. You don’t have to start an organization to make a difference or to show compassion to people. It’s something that you can do on a daily basis, but the impact can be felt years beyond,” Kittams said.

“She was just a longtime believer that people need to be treated fairly, and with compassion,” Houle said.

And soon a bronze dove will stand as a symbol of compassion and an inspiration to all.

Darwin Wolf is the sculptor for the project.

The group hopes to hold a dedication for the piece in late September.

There’s still about $12,000 to raise for the Compassion Project.

If you’d like to donate or read more about Chamberlain’s work, click here.

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