Why did you decide to volunteer with VISIONS in Montana?
Ariel: I’m a Jack Kent Cooke Young Scholar, and my advisor brought VISIONS Service Adventures to my attention when we were looking around for summer programs. I’ve always wanted to do service work, and the actual location didn’t (and still doesn’t) matter, as long as I’m making a difference to someone. VISIONS Montana was my first big, hands-on, all-in experience. The cultural allure was there as well; spending time on a Native American Reservation was a chance to expand beyond my little bubble and comfort zone.
Describe your day to day activities as a volunteer.
Ariel: There wasn’t a day when I didn’t wake up ready for whatever Montana decided to throw at me. Whether it was braving a dust storm (yes, a real dust storm), rock climbing, cliff jumping, and hiking 11 miles in one day through the backcountry of Glacier National Park, or hobbling around after dropping a tree (well, a 4-by-4 at the lumber yard) on my leg. There were also the mundane things, like rotating kitchen duty and the varying quality of the oatmeal, hanging up laundry to dry on the line, walking into the local grocery store to grab a Peace Tea, icy cold showers at 5am with the sunrise, the porta-potties…
Though it’s faded now, I got quite a sock tan from working eight hours on the construction site, where we built a stage, from the ground up, for the town of Browning, Montana. That was our main task as volunteers. By the end of the three weeks, (almost) everyone had learned how to work all the different saws, use a hammer and nail with smashing our fingers, and, in my case, clamber onto the roof and wall rafters/skeletons to paint and drill.
The locals also invited us to the difference events that they had. We went to a Sundance, helped to build and take apart the teepees, as well as cook and clean, and we even danced! Afterwards, there were sweats. We helped collect wood and rocks for the sweat lodges and then participated as well. They were definitely life-changing experiences.
We also had our adventures in the wilderness of Montana, as mentioned earlier. A mountain lion waltzed into our campground, bear cubs walked in front of our beat-up van, all manner of stray dogs became our best friends, and the prairie dogs (nicknamed P-dogs) flitted from hole to hole in the fields that stretched for miles and unbroken miles under the Big Sky.
Nights were our down time, when nature came alive. We’d toss around a Frisbee or play capture the flag, do cartwheels and practice handstands against the walls, shoot a couple hoops on the battered basket, paint and sketch, sing, or just sit together and talk. Corny as it sounds, we were free.
What made this experience unique and special?
Ariel: Definitely, absolutely, undoubtedly: the people. It wouldn’t have been what it was without the fantastic and diverse people that I lived and interacted with for three weeks. I’m still in touch with some of the kids I met – we bonded and all became incredibly close over the course of our stay. The environment, the stunning quality of northern Montana, only added to the beauty of it all.
How has this experience impacted your future?
Ariel: Personally, I’d say that my stint in Montana has had an enormous impact. It left one of the biggest dents in my mind (a good dent, not a bad one) and one of the biggest holes in my heart when I had to leave at the end of the three weeks. It’s given me a new outlook emotionally and spiritually, in ways that I don’t even think I can describe. It’s also had an impact physically; I’m more fit, I’m stronger, I’m healthier. I’m rather fond of manual labor now. And I’ve learned to read the labels on foods – how much corn do you see in the ingredients? J Montana made me a tougher person, inside and out.
Professionally, it definitely solidified my dreams a little more. I’ve always wanted to travel, meet new people and experience new cultures, and, in the process, work with disadvantaged and disabled kids. Just hanging out and playing with the little kids on the reservation made my hopes seems just that much more real, that much more achievable.