Having wanted to join the Peace Corps when she was younger, as a retiree Chriss Hayden was still looking for a meaningful way to volunteer. She found serving on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana was the perfect way to immerse herself in a culture to be able to learn about it. Chriss prepared and served meals at the Eagle Shield Center, where she says she was able to be present, listen, and learn from the elders on the reservation. Read on for Chriss’ story about what motivated her to take part in this volunteer opportunity and what she learned her week in service.
By Chriss Hayden
Many years ago when I was young and first found out about the Peace Corps, I wanted to join. However, many things got in the way of that: nursing school, marriage, children, etc. And life continues! Fast forward a few years and I found myself with three children and enjoyed nothing more than being a mother and doing everyday things with them. As they grew into young adults, there was one daughter who wanted to join the Peace Corps. I was delighted! So many people asked, “Why would she want to do that? I can’t understand that.” Well, I could! She went to Namibia, Africa and had a wonderful experience; I was able to spend almost a month there visiting her, and I still wanted to go in the Peace Corps.
Fast forward another 20 years and I am still looking for a way to volunteer! Not sure I wanted to be out of the country for two years, I started looking for opportunities within the States. I did extensive research, looking for what I was hoping would be a right fit for me. For years I had been supporting St. Joseph’s Indian School in South Dakota and was very interested in Native American cultures, so when I came across Global Volunteers’ program with the Blackfeet in Montana, it seemed like a perfect fit. I asked myself many questions about what it must be like to keep a culture, with so few people, alive so that future generations know the stories, where they came from, what life was like for their ancestors, and how to move forward to keep that alive. What better way to learn about a culture than to immerse oneself in it?
So I found my husband and myself planning a five-week road trip from Maine across the country to visit national parks and monuments in South Dakota, Wyoming, Montana, Idaho, and Canada. The highlight of the trip would be a week on the Blackfeet Reservation in Browning, Montana, with no idea what to expect other than an opportunity to learn about a culture that I had read some about, and to satisfy a deep curiosity about Native Americans – or Indians as we use to call them. I still am not sure what is appropriate, but now I know that Blackfeet refer to themselves as “Indians”.
Having a nursing background and a degree in community health, I always find myself drawn to the senior populations and the issues they are facing. With this in mind, it only seemed fitting that I would volunteer some of my time in a nursing home visiting with the residents there, and with other senior programs on the reservation. What I found when talking with the residents at the nursing home was that they were not unlike other seniors in places where I have worked and volunteered. They like to tell their story (and everyone has one), and I was there to be “present”, listen, and learn. I learned that the Blackfeet people are very strong and proud, and many are struggling to stay connected to family and want their stories to be heard so their culture can continue after they are gone. They want their grandchildren to know the native language and know the history of the Blackfeet, so they don’t become a lost culture.
I also spent some time at the Eagle Shield Senior Center, which provides activities and care for the elders of the Blackfeet, both those living at the center and those living out in the community. The center serves meals Monday through Friday and provides “Meals On Wheels” to seniors in the community. This program delivers pre-made meals to approximately 100 seniors each day. I had the opportunity to ride along in the van and help deliver the meals to the recipients and to interact with them. This was a great opportunity to see how many of the Blackfeet live. As a volunteer, I got to help in the kitchen serving food to the seniors and then had the opportunity to sit with some of the seniors for lunch. Like the seniors in the nursing home, they were so pleased just to have someone to talk to and to listen to them. They are not ashamed of the personal struggles they’ve had, sharing how they were able to pull themselves up and get beyond. They were very open to sharing the problems they have or have had in the past. They just beam when someone takes an interest in them and their stories! I found that they loved talking about their culture.
“I learned that the Blackfeet people are very strong and proud, and many are struggling to stay connected to family and want their stories to be heard so their culture can continue after they are gone. They want their grandchildren to know the native language and know the history of the Blackfeet, so they don’t become a lost culture.”– Chriss Hayden, Montana volunteer
I had the chance to spend some time with the nurse who works at the Senior Center and in the community. I wanted to interview her to get her ideas on the health of the Blackfeet elders. I found in talking with her that providing companionship and programs to the Blackfeet elders is on-going. As Global Volunteers, we helped in many ways to provide some of this companionship and assistance with programs, and they look forward to having the volunteers come back each year in the summer. I, as a volunteer, am amazed at the strength, courage, and the kindness of these people who have had so much loss and trauma in their lives, for so many generations.
“I, as a volunteer, am amazed at the strength, courage, and the kindness of these people who have had so much loss and trauma in their lives, for so many generations.”– Chriss Hayden, Montana volunteer
So, at the end of each day during my volunteering week, I would ask these three questions of myself: Did I learn, did I serve, and did I grow? And yes, it was a great learning experience and I did serve each day. I grew in understanding more about this culture and have a deeper appreciation of what these people went through and I admire the strength and courage they show each day in their struggle to keep their culture alive for the next generation.
Learn more about volunteering with the Blackfeet here.
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