Tonya Marthaler actively supports local and international charities. Last year, she volunteered her nursing skills to a group planning a mission trip to Africa. As she prepared for the trip, Marthaler encountered roadblocks at every turn – from paperwork difficulties to lack of yellow fever vaccine in Asheville. Finally, she accepted the trip was not going to happen for her.
“When the Africa trip fell through, I prayed for direction to find a nonprofit to support, especially one that helps children,” she said. Her father, Kenzie Driggers, is a descendent of the Lumbee Indians in Pembroke. He suggested looking into helping a Native American tribe. “Googling” late into the night, she came across the Oglala Lakota Sioux Tribe who live on the Pine Ridge Reservation in South Dakota.
“I started reading about the conditions the children were living in, and at first, I thought it couldn’t possibly be true,” she said. The reservation is about 3,500 square miles in size, roughly the combined area of Delaware and Rhode Island. It is also among the poorest areas in the United States. “I found that about 80 percent of the 40,000 or so residents are unemployed, and 98 percent live below the Federal poverty level. The infant mortality rate is five times higher than the national average, and the suicide rate among teens is four times the national average.”
In the 6-month period from December 2014 to June 2015, more than 100 young people on the reservation attempted suicide, according to former tribe president, John Yellowbird Steele.
Marthaler said that at least she could offer some supplies. Scanning the “Friends of Pine Ridge” website, she saw that a school had requested flip flop sandals for the children. Her family purchased several boxes and mailed them out. “I thought that was the end of my involvement, but it was actually just the beginning,” she said.
Continuing to search the Internet, she found a 2011 ABC News special with Diane Sawyer called “Hidden America: Children of the Plains.” It showed the desperate conditions on the reservation – families with no indoor plumbing, widespread alcoholism, and schools shut down due to rodent infestation and asbestos.
A young high school quarterback named Robert Look Twice was highlighted in the documentary. Marthaler decided to find Look Twice, knowing that he would be about 23 years old at this point. She tracked him down on Facebook.
Look Twice described, in a Facebook post, the presence of raw sewage and arsenic in the reservation’s water supply. Unable to sleep, Marthaler continued searching for information on Pine Ridge. She connected with Eileen Janis, a community leader on the reservation. Janis described to Marthaler the great need in the community and the inability of the U.S. government to provide support due, in part, to treaties that date back to the 1800s.
“They truly are the ‘forgotten people,’” Marthaler said. “Only 1 percent of all charitable donations annually in the U.S. goes to Native American reservations.”
Janis relayed a recent example of the desperate conditions. “She told me about three young girls who were just caught shoplifting at the grocery store. They stole sanitary products and baby wipes because they had nothing.”
That was the point where Marthaler felt she could not turn her back on the children. She called her father. “I told him I don’t know exactly what I’m going to do, I don’t really have a plan.” But she continued to research, make calls and send emails.
“When I hear of a child who has never been on a swing, or a 9-year-old who can’t count past 7, my heart aches.”
Helps Ministries in Asheville, a nonprofit, inter-denominational Christian ministry, agreed to support Marthaler’s initiative by providing the 501©3 structure she need to move forward. The name she chose for her charity is Unbroken Circle Project. “I want to find a way for people, and especially children, to dream, to have access to necessities, to become educated and literate, and not to be hungry or cold.”
Last August, Remote Area Medicine, an organization that brings free medical care to areas around the world, scheduled a clinic, but at the last minute it was cancelled. “I went anyway,” Marthaler said, and along with her family, traveled to the reservation. At the statue on the reservation commemorating the site of the Battle at Wounded Knee, Marthaler met a woman who was selling tourist items. “I asked her how to help, and she told me sponsoring families is one way, and bringing winter coats is another.”
What Marthaler also found was that the good intentions of the “Children of the Plains” documentary resulted in mismanaged and chaotic support from the public. Pine Ridge became wary of volunteers who wanted to help. Marthaler cast her net a little wider and found the neighboring Rosebud Reservation, another Lakota Tribe with desperate needs. In October of last year, two months after her first visit, the Marthalers and Driggers drove a trailer with 5,000 pounds of clothes to Rosebud.
When it was time to return to Asheville, they brought a young boy back with them to visit and to receive medical care. Unable to read, a trip to the eye-doctor revealed he was legally blind, and the Marthalers arranged for eyeglasses.
When the Marthalers and Driggers returned for a third trip in May, their work included building a playground.
Marthaler and her small team of family volunteers will return to Rosebud again in August. This time, working with Remote Area Medical, a clinic will be set up at St. Francis Mission. To date, there are MD’s, optometrists, dentists and hygienists scheduled to attend.
She has requested that medical, as well as non-medical, volunteers from this area contact her if they are able to participate in the clinic scheduled for Aug. 9-12, or help in any other way, particularly donations to support the clinic. Marthaler estimated they will need $5,073 to feed the roughly 1,000 people who will be at the clinic over the four days. She can be reached at 828-231-0343, or by email at firstname.lastname@example.org.
In a little over one year’s time, she and her husband Andy, a 2017 Biltmore Beacon 40 Under Forty Honoree, along with Tonya’s family, have raised money, connected with tribal leaders, built a playground, provided tuition assistance for 20 children, sponsored a lacrosse team, donated 5,000 pounds of clothing, arranged a fund to allow 150 kids to attend art camp, provided gardening supplies and plants for a school garden, and scheduled a clinic.
Marthaler accepts no personal credit for the work. A devout Christian, she said that doors have opened and connections have been made that far exceed what she could have done on her own. She sees much more on the horizon, including the creation of a ‘safe house’ for children.
Marthaler wears a T-shirt that reads “Perhaps you were made for such a time as this.” While her thwarted trip to Africa was a disappointment, Tonya has discovered a passion for helping a group of children desperately in need, and she welcomes this community to become involved with her.
To make donations or volunteer, call She can be reached at 828-231-0343, or email email@example.com.
By Mary Koppenheffer