VerDonna Pinkett came to Boonville at 19 years old with nothing but $20 in food stamps, two trash bags of clothes and her infant son.
"I had a thought, there's got to be more to life than this," she said. "And I knew that there was, because I remember growing up in Boonville."
For more than 20 years, Pinkett has lived and worked in Boonville at Bethel Purim Ministries, the domestic violence shelter and daycare center. She was one of the ministry’s founding members and now serves as its executive director.
She came back to Boonville after having lived on the Rosebud Indian Reservation in southern South Dakota with her mother, Bonnie.
"I had to readjust from reservation life back to life in Boonville," Pinkett said. "People in the community saw that and always gave me encouragement."
Pinkett and younger siblings were living in their grandmother’s house in Boonville before moving to the reservation when she was 12. Her mother was a member of the Rosebud Sioux Native American tribe. Pinkett’s mother grew up on the reservation and battled alcoholism and schizophrenia.
Rampant drug abuse, unemployment and a lingering feeling of hopelessness plagued the community. Shortly after the move, Pinkett’s siblings were taken back to Boonville by a social worker.
As the eldest of seven, Pinkett decided to stay on the reservation with her mother. Pinkett was in and out of foster care as her mother’s mental health deteriorated. By the time she went to high school, Pinkett had seen first-hand the severity of the tribe’s troubles as well as experienced the kindness of strangers. Namely, her foster family with whom she still remains close.
Boonville stayed in her mind through the difficult times and she wondered about the rest of her family and her home away from the reservation.
She graduated from the Marty Indian School and gave birth to her first son when she decided to leave. Two years later, her first husband died in a motorcycle accident. He was battling alcoholism. When the two agreed to divorce, Pinkett promised never to bring their son back to the reservation. Upon hearing the news of his death, Pinkett said, somewhere deep within her, she knew her decision to leave was correct.
"When I said I wasn't going to go back, I meant that," Pinkett said. "It’s dark."
She stayed at her grandmother’s house before moving into public housing. Women from the Morgan Street Baptist Church shared resources and helped watch her child as Pinkett got her CNA and worked at various nursing homes. She found her passion for childcare working at Unlimited Opportunities and was convinced she would never leave.
Pinkett attended a prayer meeting one day with a small group of community members, who at the time were discussing helping a family in need during Christmas time. The group put their money into a pot for food and toys for the family.
Pinkett came every week to the prayer meeting after that day. The group evolved and began acting as a service organization, identifying specific needs in Boonville, like a domestic violence shelter, and responding. Pinkett felt it was her way to give back to the community that helped get her on her feet.
"Probably everybody who came around that table went through something," Pinkett said. "If you've been there, you have an understanding."
The group was officially recognized as a nonprofit in 2001 and Bethel Purim Ministries was born.
It first operated as a women's shelter and food pantry out of an apartment building on Sixth Street. The organization offered peer counseling for women in abusive home situations and soon, out of necessity, opened a daycare. Pinkett liked working with children in difficult home situations because she related to them.
"I want to give these kids the best chance that they have starting out the gate," Pinkett said. "My mother was just never really able to connect."
Her mother was neglectful, battling both alcoholism and mental health issues. Pinkett admits that interacting with struggling mothers at the ministry was hard for her. At the time, she wasn’t exactly sure where her mother was or what she was doing. Phone calls between the two were sporadic.
Bethel Purim received a grant in 2005 from USDA Rural Development which allowed the ministry to move to its current location on Radio Hill Road.
The grant gave Pinkett confidence and encouraged her to take a leap of faith. She quit her job at Unlimited Opportunities, risked living without healthcare and invested her retirement money into Bethel Purim. She forfeited security for a growing passion she felt to help others.
"I risked it because I had already lived like that," Pinkett said. "It’s just how I grew up."
Pinkett felt her life experience prepared her best for this job. One of the best days of her life was getting out of public housing and no longer needing food stamps. She was familiar with the struggle.
"Watching women live, survive and thrive is what this is all for," Pinkett said. "Our goal is to restore families."
Pinkett became the executive director of Bethel Purim in 2012. Her mother moved to Boonville around that time, which is a place their family always has considered a safe place.
"She was proud of me," Pinkett said. "But she couldn’t function as a parent."
After living part time at Pinkett’s and her other childrens’ homes, Bonnie moved into Riverdell Care Center, the nursing home Pinkett had worked earlier in her career. She died there three years ago.
"I'm happy that she's finally got some rest because she never had any peace in life whatsoever," Pinkett said.
Pinkett has seven boys with her husband, Mark. They’ve been married for 25 years. Their eldest is 35 years old and the youngest is 18. Pinkett learned how to be a mother on her own, which led to her passion of helping others navigate difficult times. She says to her kids, "there’s no reason you can’t do something." She reminds them that there are no excuses for not being a compassionate person.
Pinkett’s goal is to continue leading Bethel Purim in being a source of hope and aid for the community she loves.