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UPDATE: Sheriff's Office looking for couple who last saw missing girl

The girl who has been missing since Sunday morning ran away from staff at a residential youth home near Rockerville, the organization’s executive director said at a press conference Monday morning.

Serenity Dennard, 9, was playing in the gym inside the Black Hills Children's Home before noon, Bill Colson, executive director of the Children’s Home Society, said as he stood in front of the search and rescue command center in the parking lot of the facility on South Rockerville Road. 

Dennard and three other children were being supervised by two staff members when one of the other children ran away, Colson said. As a staffer ran after that child, Dennard then took off herself. Because the remaining staffer was still supervising two other children, they stayed put and called for help rather than follow Dennard.

Other staff soon arrived to find her, but to no avail. 

"By the time we could get on her trail she was out of sight," Colson said. 

Colson said staff then immediately called 911 for help. 

"Our job is to work with young kids that need help and we’re very careful about keeping track of them and where they are at all times. Unfortunately once in a while they get away from us. It’s very, very rare. I don’t remember another situation like this one where a child has been gone this long," he said. 

"That's not uncommon that kids try to get away once in a while, and that's why we supervise them closely," Colson said. 

A staff member can supervise up to six children at a time, but the Children's Home tries to have a lower ratio, Colson said. When Dennard ran away, it was a lower ratio of one staffer per two children. 

The Children's Home Society is a private nonprofit that provides residential treatment and programs for children with emotional or behavioral needs, and victims of domestic violence, abuse and neglect, or other trauma. Colson said due to privacy concerns, he can't say how Dennard arrived at the facility or of which program she is part. 

Dennard was last seen leaving the facility around 10:45 a.m. but a couple — a man and a woman in their late 20s or early 30s driving a pickup truck — saw her soon after, the Pennington County Sheriff's Office said in a news release Monday afternoon.

The couple was cutting wood near Foster Gulch and South Rockerville Road and spoke with staff from the Children's Home on Sunday between 10:30 a.m. and 11:30 a.m., the release said. They may have been the last people to have seen Denard, and deputies would like to speak with the couple to determine a timeline and learn which direction Dennard was travelling in.

When Dennard was first reported missing, a smaller group of search and rescue personnel arrived, said Kevin Thom, Pennington County Sheriff. He said it's best to start with a smaller group so the dogs can pick up a scent or track. 

"You get too many people in there, it gets chaotic and all of a sudden you trample any potential trails or evidence," he said. 

Dogs alerted to "areas of interest," said Tammy Stadel, team leader for Pennington County Search and Rescue. "Unfortunately, none of those leads have turned anything up for us." 

More staff arrived later and searched until 10 p.m Sunday, Thom said. While a plane couldn't be used Sunday due to the snow, a plane with the Civil Air Patrol was circling the skies about the facility Monday morning. 

"We have the amount of help we need right now,” Thom said of the more than 60 people, plus four dogs, searching for Dennard by foot, plane and land vehicles on Monday. In addition to Pennington County deputies and search and rescue, Custer County Search and Rescue, Rockerville Volunteer Fire Department, the Rapid City fire and police departments, and other agencies are assisting in the search. 

Dennard was last seen on the road in front of the facility, Thom said. 

Thom said while no situation is being ruled out, such as Dennard being picked up by someone driving on the road, there is no evidence she was taken by anyone. Amber Alerts require a suspect or suspect vehicle.

"We don't have that in this case, indicating that she was abducted or anything," he said. 

Thom said team members have contacted the few neighbors that surround the rural facility. "We encourage them to check around a haystack, a wood pile, in their outbuildings."

Colson said it's unlikely that Dennard arranged to have someone pick her up. 
 
"It would be very unlikely for her to have the ability to contact a family member without our staff knowing about it and being present for the conversation," he said.  
Civilians should not try to search for Dennard because they could hurt themselves and hamper the search, officials said. 
 
"The last thing that we need is to have two operations occurring if somebody else were to get injured or unaccounted for," said Karl Jegeris, chief of the Rapid City Police Department. 
 
People trying to help would "significantly" harm the search plan and management, Stadel said. She said search and rescue teams use GPS to track where they've searched and are in constant communication with each other. 
 
"So when we have people who aren't trained, it just adds to our workload. We worry about their safety more than what we're doing to focus on our missing individual," she said. 
 
While crews are prepared for the weather and logistics, Stadel said, the climate does make the search and rescue effort more difficult. 
 
"It definitely impacts our operations. It's very icy out, we're in very steep terrain. So that makes it really difficult for us to search. With the snow cover it also makes it a little bit harder to find any kind of tracks, any evidence that was left over," she said. The dogs are also impacted because "scent doesn't travel, it doesn't flow as much on a warm day."
 
The temperature was 1 degree Monday morning and in the negatives Sunday night. 
 
"Obviously we're concerned about someone freezing to death," Thom said. 
 
We're "learning everything we can about the circumstance," Jegeris said, adding that staff from the Children's Home Society has been very helpful. 

"If this were to go on unsolved and she's not located, the investigation will remain a priority until she is located," he said of Dennard. 
 
"Our staff are very, very concerned and our kids that know that Serenity is gone is as well," Colson said. 
 
Dennard is white, 4 feet, 7 inches tall, 90 pounds, with blue eyes and shoulder-length dirty blonde hair. She was last seen wearing only a long-sleeved gray shirt with flowers, blue jeans and snow boots. Serenity is from Sturgis and may be trying to get to her family. 

Anyone with information about Dennard is asked to contact the Pennington County Sheriff’s Office at 605-394-6115.


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Special Olympians earn their varsity letters

Wearing a newly earned varsity letter on a letterman's jacket is a point of pride for every high school athlete, but perhaps none wear theirs more proudly than the Rapid City Flame. 

The Rapid City Flame is a Special Olympics South Dakota team of children, teens and young adults. More than 150 athletes from Rapid City, Hill City and Bison are part of Rapid City Flame. 

Through a collaboration with the Rapid City, Douglas, Hill City and Bison school districts, Rapid City Flame athletes can qualify to earn a varsity letter from their school for participating in Special Olympics. It's the only such collaboration in South Dakota, according to Jack Lynass, president of the Rapid City Flame. 

"It could be the easiest thing that lowers the barriers between (Special Olympians) and other kids," Lynass said. "It brings them together."

A letter on a letterman's jacket can spark conversations and help kids find interests they have in common, Lynass said.

The Rapid City Flame raises money to provide a letterman's jacket, with the letter already on it, so each athlete can immediately wear his or her accomplishment.

On Monday, 11 athletes in total were honored at a recognition event in Rapid City. Some were so excited they literally ran onto the stage to get their jackets and letters. Once in their jackets, athletes grinned, waved and gave thumbs-up signs to the audience before posing for photos.

Eight athletes received letters and jackets at Monday's event:

Adam Bolyard, Rapid City Stevens — bocce, softball, track, basketball and soccer

Kacey Carlson, Rapid City Central — softball

Rachel Flasted, Rapid City Stevens — track and swimming

Sabrina Hedge, Hill City High School — bowling

Aric Lassegard, Rapid City Stevens — bocce, softball, track, basketball and swimming

Mason Matthew, Rapid City Stevens — basketball, track and skiing

Jeremiah Riter, Rapid City Central — basketball and softball

Liam Ryder, Rapid City Stevens — bowling, swimming and skiing

Three athletes who also earned varsity letters and jackets were unable to attend. Jozee Veal and Jaylie Beckman from Bison High School lettered for track and bowling. Carter Parsons of Rapid City Central High School lettered for track, swimming, basketball, softball, skiing and swimming. 

Students can qualify to earn a varsity letter starting in ninth grade. Special Olympics events emphasize participation and sportsmanship, said Dr. Mark Harlow, a Special Olympics South Dakota board member and former Rapid City Flame president. Harlow received the Keeper of the Flame award during Monday's event.

Students must attend two Special Olympics events and actively participate in practices to earn a varsity letter. Between seven and 12 athletes earn their varsity letters and jackets every year. 

"Some wear their jackets every day, well beyond high school," said Sherry Grismer, the head of delegation for the Rapid City Flame. 

For more information about Rapid City Flame, go to rcflame.org.


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Regifting Store fills vital needs for struggling families

Today marks the launch of the Rapid City Area Schools Regifting Store, a new service for families who struggle to have adequate food and clothing.

The store is a community outreach that provides necessary items to people free of charge. The RCAS Regifting Store's grand opening is today from 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m. at Rapid City High School. Take the South Street exit off Fifth Street to 625 South St. and go in that entrance. Signs inside the building will direct people to the store.

Clothing for all ages, from infant through adult, is available. The store provides some housewares as well, such as rugs, drapes and shower curtains. Under the direction of its coordinator, Jeanne Burckhard-McKenna, volunteers have been loading up the store with clothing that's clean and in good condition.

"We're hoping (the store) is going to be jam-packed," she said. "We're going to keep restocking as people shop. We'll keep the store full."

The Regifting Store will be open on the first and third Tuesdays of the every month to coordinate with the food pantry at Rapid City High School. Feeding South Dakota and the school district partnered to offer the twice-monthly food pantry to families of students enrolled in the district. The pantry is open from 3:30 p.m. to 6 p.m.; the Regifting Store will have slightly longer hours, from 3 p.m. to 6:30 p.m.

"Families can easily access groceries and clothing in one trip," Burckhard-McKenna said.

In response to their students' needs, many local schools already maintain a supply of food, deodorant, winter coats and other items, but the Regifting Store is more extensive, said Katy Urban, RCAS public information manager.

Burckhard-McKenna said the Regifting Store will be a resource for anyone in Rapid City and the surrounding area who needs assistance, such as senior citizens or college students with limited finances. The store will also be available to aid families who need to replace basic essentials after an emergency, such as a house fire, she said.

The Regifting Store is possible because of donations from the community and the support of local businesses and organizations. JC Penney donated hangers. Safeway provided a grocery cart people can use to transport items to their vehicles. The Clothes Mentor, Once Upon a Child and Plato's Closet have offered to donate clothing, and The Hope Center will pass along donations it is unable to use. Currently, Burckhard-McKenna said, she has so many donations in storage that she will not be able to accept more until March.

Burckhard-McKenna sees a growing need for services such as the Regifting Store. A former principal at North Middle School, she started the local school backpack program that provides food for kids in need on weekends. She's also a trained facilitator for Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs), which studies how childhood trauma affects individuals — regardless of income — into adulthood.

"Our family dynamics have really changed. We're seeing more single-parent families; we're seeing more grandparents raising kids," Burckhard-McKenna said. "We're finding that we're getting a lot of fathers — all of a sudden they have their children and they have nothing. We had a grandma who all of a sudden had her grandchildren (living with her). She didn't have a car seat. She didn't have diapers."

Locally and nationwide, the poverty rate is rising, she said. According to Data USA, the poverty rate in Rapid City is 16.4 percent. The national poverty rate is 14 percent.

Resources such as the Regifting Store are lifelines for families in poverty, for whom spending even a couple of dollars for an item at a thrift store might be more than they can afford, Burckhard-McKenna said.

For more information about the Regifting Store, to donate items or to volunteer, call or text Jeanne Burckhard-McKenna at 801-231-3998.