On a warm July day, two vehicles emptied into the Blackfeet United Methodist Church parking lot in Browning, Montana. Luggage was unloaded and carried into the bunkrooms in the basement. The excitement and anticipation for the week ahead was palpable: it hung in the air and could be felt by all of the members of the team. They were the 200th Team from Global Volunteers to serve on the Blackfeet Reservation.
This summer was Global Volunteers’ 23rd year working on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana. During these 23 years, approximately 2,200 volunteers have served in the Blackfeet Nation, for a total of 88,320 service hours completed. Just this summer, 12 teams totaling 178 volunteers served in the Blackfeet Community. One of these teams was Team 200; a team of 16 volunteers and a volunteer team leader, with team members traveling from Massachusetts, Florida, Mississippi, Illinois, North Carolina, Washington DC, New Hampshire, Michigan, Texas, and Virginia to Northwest Montana. The volunteers came from all walks of life, ages 12 to 75. The team spent a week serving alongside many community partners.
A typical week of service gives volunteers opportunities to work at food pantries, with children at summer school, completing labor projects to improve community buildings, and serving local seniors at the senior center. While serving with community partners, volunteers get many opportunities to interact with community members. The experiences that seem to stick with volunteers the most, following their service programs, are the people who reside in Blackfeet Country. Volunteers often speak about how important it was for them to be able to interact one-on-one with local people, hearing their experiences and finding common ground. Team 200 was no exception.
Jennifer Cooperman, a social worker from Massachusetts, found that though she works with people every day in her career in circumstances like the Blackfeet Community, she found that there were elements of life here that provided additional complications. “I did not truly appreciate the challenges of getting resources to people when public transportation doesn’t exist, and it can be hours to the nearest resources,” Jennifer commented. Bringing greater awareness to both the complications of life in this area, as well as the beautiful culture and community, are great benefits of volunteers serving with community members. Volunteers take their experiences home to share with their own communities, increasing the visibility of issues relative to indigenous communities.
Global Volunteers teams spend time serving the community, as well as learning about the community. Jolene Stratton, a dental hygienist and teacher’s aide, has held onto the memories from her time in Montana since her return. She said, what sticks with her the most is her “desire to know more and learn more about the Blackfeet people, past, present and what the future holds for their nation”. With the ability to interact directly with members of the community, volunteers are able to directly experience Blackfeet culture and traditions. Jolene also noted that “it was truly a blessing to be welcomed to this beautiful land”. These are lasting experiences for volunteers, leading some to return to the Blackfeet Reservation in subsequent summers.
On the 200th team, there were two volunteers who had served on the Blackfeet Reservation before. Jerome Watkins, a retired child protection specialist, was on his second service program in Montana with the 200th team. Jerome’s first service program in Montana was in 2022, and he chose to come back for another service program in the same place this summer. During the week, community members remembered him from the previous summer, and enjoyed catching up with him after a year away. Jerome spent time during the week serving with a few different community partners but found special meaning in serving with the Browning Public Schools summer school. He was able to engage with some of the older kids, around middle school and high school age. He spoke with them about his career, as well as “to start now to plan to attend college”. Jerome plans to return to the Blackfeet Reservation in the summer of 2024 to further serve and engage with the community.
Along with the usual service of a typical week of a Montana Program, volunteers got to visit another community on the Reservation outside of Browning to help work to prepare for an upcoming Powwow. The community of Hear Butte lies 26 miles south of Browning, in a valley surrounded by hills and mountains on all sides. With a population of 600 people, it is much smaller than the town of Browning, which has a population of around 2,000. A few of the team members spent a day here preparing church grounds for the upcoming powwow, in which those traveling from other communities might use the grounds to camp during their stay. This project gave volunteers an opportunity to see a different community within the reservation. It was much quieter than Browning, with only the occasional car driving by. What was the same as anywhere else on the reservation were the children out playing and enjoying their summer vacation. As volunteers worked mowing grass and removing trash and other refuse, children biked up and down the gravel road, seeing how fast they could whiz by. It was an enjoyable sight for the volunteers and was a reminder of why they were doing the work they were doing: the service being done today would have a ripple effect for the kids riding their bikes up and down the road and would one day have a positive impact on them.
Members of Team 200 would spend their time with their morning coffee, and evening time winding down, sitting on the steps in front of the BUMP Church, where volunteers were housed during their program. Volunteers on this team spent this time talking about the experiences, reflecting on how their personal lives connected to those within the community, and how else they could be in service to the community and to the world. Volunteer team leader, John Taylor noted that as a result of a shared set of goals and determination, “was an emerging team dynamic, and a superb blending of this group into a focused set of new friends” Along with taking home locally made souvenirs, this team also took home memories and friendships with each other and community members that will last a lifetime.