As the CEO of an international investment corporation, Twila True has traveled across the world and made more than enough money to live comfortably for the rest of her life.
True spent 12 years in Asia running her corporation, yet slowly but surely, taking on the role of philanthropist. Helping to establish an orphanage in China was among her early successes.
When she returned to the U.S. in 2012, True began to seek out a new opportunity to put her wealth and talents to good use and to help others.
While searching for severely impoverished areas where she might do the most good — virtually anywhere on the planet — her husband approached her one day, tapped her on the shoulder and gave her an idea that was surely close to her roots and her heart.
For True, a member of Oglala Sioux Tribe with a federally assigned tribal number, it was as if her husband had flipped a switch, and pointed out the obvious: That the place where her relatives lived, a place she had visited often, a place where her heritage is strong, needed help as much as any other place in the world.
Soon, True began to focus on finding ways to improve life on the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation.
True, co-founder, president and CEO of True Investments LLC., was born in San Gabriel, Calif., but she made frequent visits to Pine Ridge with her grandmother as a child. After her husband's talk, she started looking into all the problems that are afflicting the reservation and decided it was the perfect place to practice philanthropy.
For the past two years or so, she has repeatedly traveled between her home in Irvine, Calif., and Pine Ridge to meet with the residents, witness the poverty and problems up close, and figure out what needed to be done. Going back to the reservation opened her eyes to the plight of those in Pine Ridge, one of the poorest areas in America.
"I would meet a very young child, not knowing how poor everyone was, who had great aspirations and lots of hope," she said "Once they become teenagers, most tend to lose hope and either commit suicide or become alcoholics."
During her travels, she began the process of forming the True Sioux Hope Foundation with the intent of breaking the vicious cycle of poverty on the reservation. She obtained legal nonprofit status for her organization in October.
The True Sioux Hope Foundation has three main objectives: provide immediate aid to families in desperate need of basic living necessities such as firewood or baby formula; create a better educational system on the reservation; and foster long-term stability through workforce training and transportation to employment. The foundation will hold its first fundraising event in February.
One tactic True is using to gather deeper support is to work with her allies in the philanthropy community to get others on board and to convince them they do not need to go overseas to find people who need help.
"Other philanthropists want to make donations to help places in dire need, but so many don't know there's a place right in the middle of America that has problems comparable to any Third World country. They're going to Africa, they're going to Mexico," she said. "When I tell them the statistics (of Pine Ridge) they don't know what country I'm talking about."
The numbers from the U.S. Census Bureau back up her statement: 97 percent of people on the reservation live below the poverty line; it has an 89 percent unemployment rate; infant mortality is 300 percent higher than the national average, and is the highest in North America. Meanwhile, 60 percent of homes have no water or electricity; only 27 percent of residents have a high school diploma or GED; 17 people live in a single home on average; and the life expectancy for men on Pine Ridge is 47 years.
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When explaining the problems with Pine Ridge, True said she's has to dispel some stereotypes that many people have about Native Americans. Many people she has spoken to assume that Native Americans have a lot of money because they can have casinos or get lots of federal aid. She said people are much more receptive to contributing to her foundations once they get past those misconceptions.
"Philanthropists I've talked to seem eager to help once I can dispel some of the myths they have about Native American reservations," True said.
Katie Collins, a fundraiser for nonprofit organizations in Irvine, said she had never heard of Pine Ridge until True spoke with her about 18 months ago.
"I was flabbergasted to hear that this was happening in the United States," she said.
She said just about everyone she has spoken with has had the same reaction when they learned about Pine Ridge. Now she is helping True get her new foundation rolling by contacting other philanthropists and charitable organizations.
True said she has mixed emotions about her trips as a child to the reservation with her grandmother.
"Growing up, I saw all of the good, I saw the family values, it goes back to the traditional ways of family values and helping each other," True said. " But I also saw all the poverty, which motivated me to work hard to avoid that fate. I was lucky to have an opportunity to be off the reservation. Most people who on the reservation never go more than 400 yards off the reservation. But I had a chance to succeed."
She couldn't really explain why she and her grandmother would take trips to Pine Ridge; it was just something she always did.
"I don't know why (we went), but they say we're like homing pigeons, no matter how good or bad the conditions are, we always go home," She said. "It always somehow feels good to be amongst your fellow Native Americans."
Jeff Whalen, 61, has lived on the reservation for most of his life, aside from his time serving in the United States Marine Corps as a Lance Corporal. He said he has been working alongside True to identify the best way to the tackle the monumental problems on the reservation.
Throughout his life, he has seen other groups and organizations present what they call investment opportunities, but they were usually either total pipe dreams or wouldn't actually benefit the tribe itself.
He said True is different because not only does she have the resources to make a difference, she is also a member of the tribe and she has been welcomed with open arms.
"Twila is a tribal member, which makes a lot of difference. She's been down here a lot talking to a lot of tribal leaders, and it's obvious she cares about her people."
He has absolute faith that the True Sioux Hope Foundation is going to have a huge impact. "I'm not hopeful or skeptical," he said, "I know that this is going to happen."