When Dillon Gestring arrived in Chicago, he didn’t hit all the tourist attractions.
Instead, his United Church of Christ (UCC) youth group worked at an inner-city soup kitchen. The Vermillion High School (VHS) student saw the face of hunger before him in a major city unlike his hometown of 10,000 residents.
“At first, it was almost a little scary seeing how many people out there needed help. But once it was over, it was cool to be able to help them out,” he said. “I can’t think of a better way of dedicating yourself and reaching out to others. It was wonderful.”
Gestring also worked with Tanager Take Out, a backpack and food pantry program named after the VHS mascot. He sacked up groceries for distribution to drivers stopping at the site.
“They were mostly families with children, not college students (at the University of South Dakota),” he said. “The food was intended to get them through the weekend. It was sad to realize the amount of people in your hometown who need help, but this was a way to keep them fed.”
Known for his basketball prowess, Gestring said he found the service projects as gratifying as his success on the court.
Last week, the Tanagers brought home seventh place in the school’s first state boys tournament berth in 32 years. However, Gestring also brought home an honor he considered a highlight of his life.
He received the “Spirit of Su Award,” named after the late SuAnne Big Crow of Pine Ridge. She played for the 1989 state girls basketball championship team. A member of the Oglala Sioux Tribe, she was born and raised on the Pine Ridge reservation. She died in 1992 as a teenager in a car accident.
The award recognizes character, academics, leadership and other desirable traits. Each school in the boys or girls state tournament nominates a senior from its team, and the “Spirit of Su” winner is named during Saturday night’s championship game.
Gestring inadvertently was tipped off that he was the recipient moments before the presentation.
“I knew Becky Jensen, one of the people presenting the award. She looked around and gave a thumbs-up to my parents (Keith and Sheila Gestring) sitting in the stands,” he said. “They thought I didn’t know, but I saw Becky’s signal. I still didn’t think I would win it. But when they said my name, I was relieved and happy.”
The younger Gestring received the plaque, and an American Indian quilt was draped around his shoulders. The quilt’s patchwork of colors denotes Big Crow’s desire for people of all races to live in peace and harmony.
Gestring knew of the great honor surrounding the award, but he didn’t know as much about Big Crow herself. His basketball coach, Jay Drake, provided him with more information after the team returned home.
As he learned more about Big Crow, Gestring developed an intense respect and appreciation for her example — including the time she stood up to a crowd’s mocking of her American Indian team’s heritage during a road game. In response to the verbal abuse, she performed a traditional dance at center court and sang in Lakota.
“During the warmup before the game, the crowd was saying mean things to her and insulting her race. She went into the shawl dance (using her warmup jacket) to show the crowd, ‘This is who I am,’” Gestring said.
“I thought that was really cool, and I would like to be able to give that kind of example — to speak out more against what is wrong and to prevent those kinds of things from happening. It could be stopping someone getting picked on. It might be hard, but it’s the right thing to do. I believe other people deserve to be treated with kindness.”
During his VHS athletic career, Gestring has earned varsity letters in soccer, cross country, basketball and football. He won numerous honors during the past three years of basketball, including leading the Tanagers to last week’s state tournament.
In the classroom, he currently ranks at the top of his class of 81 students, which would bring him valedictorian honors. He holds a perfect 4.0 grade point average (GPA) which includes three college courses and 10 honors courses.
In addition, he has been selected a Champion of Character for Vermillion High School, Student of the Month, Academic All-State in Soccer and Homecoming Royal Court.
A member of the National Honor Society (NHS), he has been recognized as an honors student. The chapter held its hooding, presentation of stoles and graduation this week.
Even before he entered high school, Gestring set a goal of attaining NHS membership. Besides the honor itself, he sees it as an important distinction when applying for colleges.
Sheila Gestring serves as USD president, but Dillon said his parents didn’t pressure him to remain in Vermillion and attend USD. Dillon is attending Grinnell College in Iowa, where he will also play NCAA Division III basketball. He hasn’t yet chosen a major, but he holds interests in math, science and political science.
At VHS, his favorite subjects have come from the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics) curriculum.
Growing up, Gestring said his parents instilled in him the importance of finishing his homework as assigned and arriving places on time. He considers those lessons as important lifetime traits.
In addition, growing up in Vermillion provided him with exposure to a university setting with its academics and activities. He could explore a variety of opportunities while still enjoying a close-knit community.
As a volunteer, Gestring has helped with youth basketball camps, sold programs at the DakotaDome and helped clean up the facility after games. In addition, he has participated in Volunteer Day, helping residents and businesses with community clean-ups.
During his senior year, Gestring has come out of his comfort zone by performing with the VHS show choir known as “Rhythm In Red.”
He was approached to audition for the choir, which counts as both a class and extracurricular activity. The group holds daily rehearsals along with a weekly evening session. This year, they wore face masks and remained socially distant during rehearsals because of the pandemic.
During concerts, the show choir members didn’t wear masks but still remained socially distant during their numbers. The choir performed its final concert this week.
Gestring admits things didn’t start out smoothly, but he believes he improved over time in mastering the music and routines.
“When we started school and were learning the choreography, I was so horrible,” he said. “We wore masks, and I wasn’t even singing. Since then, I gained enough confidence where I’m singing and have wound up with a solo in the spring show.”
Contest judges liked what they saw, as “Rhythm In Red” earned a superior rating, the top award, during competition. And with the improved status of the pandemic, the attendance restrictions were eased for the final concert.
What started as a terrifying experience became enjoyable in a number of ways, Gestring said.
“Now, I wish I had done it earlier in high school. It’s more than I thought it would be,” he said. “I’ve been able to meet so many new people who I would never have known well before. I’m able to add more friendships and enjoy stronger relationships.”
As for the recently concluded basketball season, Gestring admits his senior year was a roller coaster ride in many ways. The pandemic limited attendance at games, but the contests were streamed to viewing audiences.
Vermillion took an undefeated record into the State “A” tournament but lost to Dell Rapids in the first round on a shot at the buzzer.
“We had been in close games during the season, but we had never lost. We were never in that situation,” he said. “We tried to bounce back the next day. We lost, but we did win our final game and finish in seventh place.”
Like millions of other students, the pandemic affected Gestring’s senior year in ways he never anticipated. When South Dakota recorded its first cases in March 2020, Vermillion ended classroom instruction and switched to online delivery. The state basketball tournaments and all spring activities were cancelled.
“During spring 2020, I missed the personal feeling of being in school. It was weird — you just sat down (at home) and really needed to pay attention to a screen all day,” he said. “You never really got a break. You just went from one Zoom class to another. It was really draining.”
To maintain some social connections, Gestring and his friends set up Zoom gatherings. During the summer, he participated in some limited activities.
By fall, the Vermillion school district resumed in-person instruction using a form of block scheduling, Gestring said. “I appreciated getting together with everyone in the classroom and being around people I know,” he said.
As he prepares for the next chapter in his life, Gestring — a confirmed UCC member — said he has used his Christian belief as a rock.
“My faith is special to me. I believe in God and feel He has a plan for everyone,” he said. “I want to reach out and help others, and (my faith) helps me feel very connected.”
In terms of making an impact, Gestring sees the “Spirit of Su Award” as something special in his life.
“I think this is my greatest award,” he said. “It’s my favorite one because it isn’t just about winning games or winning our way to the state tournament. It’s about being a good person, and something I intend to keep doing.”
Big Crow’s example will continue to provide an inspiration, he said.
“She was a really special person,” he said. “Knowing that I represent that (strength of character) in some way by winning the award is really awesome.”
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