Flandreau’s “Crazy Volunteer Lady”

Posted on November 21, 2018

Paula Jensen
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Emily Firman Pieper stole the show at the first Dakota Resources Rural X event when she proposed the Open X topic: “How can I get paid to be a volunteer?”

Her question was met with laughter and understanding from a crowd well-versed in the logistics of rural volunteerism. Every aspect of rural life is made better when a community has a strong core of engaged volunteers. Without them, our schools, churches, community events and overall quality of life drastically suffer. In a small town, willing volunteers are like gold—and sometimes just as hard to find.

In Flandreau, where Emily lives with her family, she isn’t just gold. She’s the entire gold mine.

“Somewhere along the line, something clicked,” she explains. “I realized I have a passion for making things happen. I love connecting with people. I enjoy solving problems. Volunteering doesn’t pay the bills, but it does feed my spirit.”

Emily’s desire to bring new opportunities to Flandreau has led her to organize community events, dance classes, soccer teams, summer rec programs, community theater, yoga, Zumba, tea parties, pop-up shops and women’s groups.

She has also been involved in a philanthropic adventure known as Studio 52, a nonprofit, community-education and creative learning space she opened to enrich the lives of people of all ages. Studio 52 has been without a permanent space since April, but its outreaching efforts are alive and well.

“We’re still doing dance classes and spearheading community events like the children’s Halloween party and the Christmas Parade,” she says. “Studio 52 was designed to bring people together, even if we don’t have the actual space to do that at the moment.”

Emily is also committed to Bridge Flandreau, a community advocacy group involving a group of like-minded people working together to help bridge the cultural gaps between different races of people. That group gained traction with community innovation grant money through the South Dakota Community Foundation.

“I do like to volunteer, but I am not alone in this. I have great partnerships with a lot of different people. You can’t throw a community event without community buy-in. There are many people who help make all these things possible in Flandreau and lots of people who appreciate the good stuff being done,” she says.

For years, Emily struggled over the question of how to get paid for doing what she loves.

This fall, her question was answered. She was hired to teach theater and speech at Dakota State University, a position that fits her perfectly.

“The timing was right and it all fell together in such a crazy way,” she says. “Teaching at a university gives me the freedom to pursue my many other interests, while allowing me to make a little ‘shoe money’ for my kids.”

Will having a new career slow down her volunteering efforts?

“I honestly don’t know how NOT to be engaged,” she says “When I see something with potential, I’m all in.”

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