Tag Archives: Toy Drive for Pine Ridge

A Toy Drive Straight to the Heart

August 23, 2019 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

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.

Larry Dunn aka Lash LaRue

Larry Dunn aka Lash LaRue

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.

Larry Dunn aka Lash LaRue

Larry Dunn, aka Lash LaRue

Toy Drive for Pine Ridge Video

August 9, 2019 by

Larry Dunn, better known around Omaha as Lash LaRue, has been collecting Christmas toys for the children of Pine Ridge since 2003. Through benefit concerts and general fundraising, his 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization not only provides the figurative sense of warmth through the toy giving program, but literal warmth through heating assistance for families as well. This video from Danny Burns shows the direct effect the program has on the residents of Pine Ridge.

(The web address at the end of the video has changed. Please visit toydriveforpineridge.org for more details and to find out how you can help.) 


Selfies and Selflessness

December 6, 2018 by

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Pick of the Week—Thursday, Dec. 6 to Sunday, Dec. 9: You know it’s that time—that time when we get to combine good times with doing good. The Toy Drive for Pine Ridge Winter Benefit has a long history of doing that. This year they are taking the show on the road to the Zoo Bar in Lincoln on Thursday night. On Saturday, you have the chance to see two shows, one at Reverb Lounge and/or one at Waiting Room (it’s up to you). If you can’t make it out that night, you can still help out on Sunday. In the morning, you can catch the Pacific Street Blues & Americana 28th anniversary celebration at Reverb as they host the toy drive’s radio show on 89.7 The River. This event is free, but donations are encouraged. Make it an all-day Sunday funday by heading to Chrome Lounge that afternoon, where you can see five different bands play throughout the evening, including toy drive founder Larry Dunn’s band, Lash LaRue & The Hired Guns (also playing on Saturday). Head here for more information and to donate if you are a hermit who doesn’t want to leave the house.

Thursday, Dec. 6 to Sunday, Dec. 9: Ever since the U.S men won their first gold medal in curling, a “curling craze” has swept the country, including right here in Omaha. Are you one of those people who can’t get enough of this ancient Scottish sport? Head to Ralston Arena to watch the Curling World Cup. Omaha is the second stop in the four leg series. Get your tickets here now.

Saturday, Dec. 8, and Friday, Dec. 14 to Saturday, Dec. 15: It’s a family affair at the at the Union for Contemporary Art this weekend and next, where you can see Nested, a gentle and non-verbal play specifically for children 6 and younger with their families. This play explores family, love, and separation and includes live music, audience participation, and a 10-foot nest the audience is encouraged to experience. This weekend’s Friday performance sold out, so get your tickets here soon! Not sure what all the kerfuffle is about? Check out our story on the artistic director of Kerfuffle, Ashley Laverty here.

Saturday, Dec. 8: We know how hard it is to get a good picture of your pet, so no promises—but you will no doubt get some fun pictures at the Selfies with Santa event at the Nebraska Humane Society this Saturday. Bring your own camera or smartphone to capture that (potentially hilarious) moment. NHS volunteers will be available to assist with your pets and to take your pictures if you’re not so good at the selfie thing. Donations will be accepted onsite. Please remember, it might sound fun to adopt a pet for the holidays, but it’s also a responsibility—think and plan accordingly. Human babes are also welcome at this event, btw. Learn more about it here, and make a donation here.

Sunday, Dec. 9: Were you afraid you missed it? Don’t worry. The German-American Society’s Christmas in Germany was postponed last week due to weather, so you can still head out to celebrate the best of German traditions. Singing, dancing, live music, and of course, a visit from St. Nikolaus are all on the schedule. Mid-America Woodcarvers & M.I. Hummel Club is displaying their wares, and Christkindlmarkt will be on hand, selling Christmas decorations, gifts, and tasty treats. Of course, it wouldn’t be a celebration without food! Waltz on over here for more information.


It’s a Hullabaloo of a Weekend

July 19, 2018 by

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Pick of the Week—Saturday, July 21: The Native Americans of Pine Ridge face many challenges and struggles every day. This Sunday, you can help them out and maybe learn a little more about what you can do to continue to help at the Propane fund benefit show/poker run at Chrome Lounge. This event is put on by The Toy Drive for Pine Ridge, a local nonprofit started 15 years ago by local musician Lash LaRue. You’ve probably seen him (and his events) around town. The Blues Society of Omaha is also a special sponsor this Saturday. The poker run starts at 10 a.m. and the music will start flowing at Chrome at 7 p.m. Did we mention Hawk’s BBQ will be there to feed your belly while the music (and the knowledge that you’re partying for a cause) feeds your soul? Well, now we have. For more info about the event, go here.

Thursday, July 19 to Sunday, August 5: Award-winning Nebraskan playwright Ellen Struve developed her new play, The Dairy Maid-Right, with help from the Creighton Theatre department. The play tells the story of what happens when two rural Nebraska teens of different cultural backgrounds discover a child migrant living in a cornfield. Directed by Creighton’s Amy Lane, this quick-moving story handles some heavy subject matter, but that doesn’t mean it’s lacking in humor. Head to the Shelterbelt Theatre to catch this local gem. Get your tickets here now.

Thursday, July 19 to Sunday, July 22: There is. So. Much. Music. Happening! At this year’s Hullabaloo 2018 Music & Camping Festival at Falconwood Park. If you get your weekend pass now, you can chill out under the stars for three full nights of music love. But if you’re a commitment-phobe, you can always just go for a one-night stand ticket for either Thursday, Friday, or Saturday. It’s not just about the music, though. You can play some frisbee golf, do some yoga, or make some pottery—even get a massage. Local vendors will also be on hand if you find yourself in need of a new shirt after a long day of dancing and playing in the dirt. Or if you want some grub that’s not cooked over a campfire. Find out all about the happenings here.

Saturday, July 21 to Sunday, July 22: Make no mistake, the Concourse Classic is a car show. But keep an eye on the sky, as there will be some fancy parachuting going on at a special outdoor event, including a flag presentation from the Lincoln Sport Parachute Club happening at noon on Saturday. The real draw, though, is the classic automobile show, with over 100 autos and motorcycles to check out. Highlights of the show include a 1910 Ford Model T and a 1954 Kaiser Darrin. Learn about more surprises here.

Sunday, July 22: Get your vintage toys, vinyl, tapes, and more at The Waiting Room this Sunday. Buy, sell, and trade your stuff at this summer’s Punk Rock Flea Market. The market features individuals and small businesses exercising their DIY muscle and celebrating the punk ethos. Best of all? There’s no cover for this four-hour “show.” Kickstart your Sunday Funday in the punkest of ways. Shop local, support local. Educate yourself here.  .