Larry Cortez, a student in Southeast Technical’s welding program, has created a meaningful project that combines a piece of personal history with a piece of his heart and serves a community need all at the same time. Cortez, a Native American and descendent of the Crow Creek Tribe near Ft. Thompson, South Dakota, enrolled in the welding program this past fall and was required to complete a number of class projects that test both knowledge and skill of the trade. Cortez, under the direction of his instructor Gary Stoika, brought an idea to the drawing board to build metal crosses (grave markers) for his community’s cemetery back home on the Crow Creek reservation in South Dakota.
The idea arose from a need Cortez had been aware of his entire lifetime. After years of less than optimal care, the cemetery in his home community became a site of neglect and improper maintenance. As a result, many Native American grave sites had lost their wooden cross markers due to age, burnouts to control brush and weeds and lack of funds to maintain the area to the proper level of integrity of any cemetery.
Through his coursework in the welding program, Cortez easily saw this as a project with a purpose and took on the task of developing a design, jig and manufacturing process for creating metal/welded crosses. The new markers would replace remnants of earlier grave markers and even identify the location of many unmarked or minimally marked graves.
The project incorporated Cortez’s newly acquired welding skills with his personal mission to bring integrity and proper marking to the cemetery site. A little support from his fellow students, who helped assemble some of the crosses, and access to tools and materials were all it took to make the project take on a new life. Through connections with Lyle Rustad, a local diversity foundation director, and helping hands from Trinity Presbyterian Church in Rochester, Minn., the two men were able to coordinate an effort with three churches back home and further continue a mission the Rochester church had started several years ago to give the aging cemetery a facelift.