Volunteer Team Leader Michael Harris first served with Global Volunteers in 2016 with his daughter, Alyssa. He immediately sought out additional ways to stay involved with Global Volunteers and attended Team Leader Training that same year. He has since led teams in Montana every summer (except during the COVID pandemic). Mike is a retired educator whose 40-year career included teaching students with special needs and as elementary school principal and superintendent of schools. Mike is deeply committed to serving the Blackfeet in Montana. Read on for details on Team Leader Mike Harris.
How did you come to start volunteering with Global Volunteers and then begin leading teams?
My daughter Alyssa, who is a school social worker, wanted to volunteer in a community located in the United States. She found Global Volunteers online and was intrigued by the service opportunity available in Blackfeet Nation. Knowing my interest in Native American culture and people, she asked me to accompany her for the service program in the summer of 2016. It was one of the best decisions of my life and a life-changing experience followed. I instantly fell in love with the Blackfeet community, the beauty of the country, and the philosophy of the Global Volunteers program itself.
Towards the end of my volunteer experience, I spoke to my Global Volunteers Team Leader, Cindy Murray, about what was required to be a team leader. She put me in touch with Global Volunteers and I attended Team Leader Training in December of 2016.
Since my training, I have led six teams in Montana and thoroughly enjoyed the experience with every team.
What compels you to lead teams for Global Volunteers?
Since my childhood, I have been interested in Native American history and culture. Understanding the history of the Blackfeet Indians and other tribes has led me to serve their community, hopefully educate other volunteers about their community needs, and to demonstrate as best we can that there are people who care and want to contribute to their community.
The connections I have made with Blackfeet community members over the years compel me to return to the community each year. Only the COVID-19 pandemic has prevented me from doing so the last couple of years.
What is one of your favorite parts of your role as team leader?
I absolutely love meeting and interacting with volunteers from all over the country and from other nations. Learning about their backgrounds and desire for volunteering is always intriguing and inspirational. As a retired educator, I especially enjoy working with families who have children.
In addition, I always look forward to reconnecting with the community members of Blackfeet Nation. Community members such as Pastor Hill and his wife, Bob Tailfeathers, Joe Jessepe, Tom Crawford, Carrie and Chuck DeBoo, and Pauline Weatherwax are just a few of the people that have become friends during my Global Volunteers experiences. Their love of their land and community is truly inspiring.
Why do you recommend a Global Volunteers service program?
One of the things that draws me to Global Volunteers is our philosophy to serve the partner community by addressing the needs that they have identified as a community. They tell us what they want and need, not the other way around. Therefore, we are providing services to them that are truly needed and valued by the community. Also, the importance of volunteers participating in shared work experiences (working side by side with community members) significantly enriches the volunteer experience.
Most of us can visit a community as a tourist, enjoy the sights, the sounds, the food, and a cursory exposure to the culture. However, the Global Volunteer experience enables you to enhance your knowledge and understanding of another community while providing meaningful service to communities that need assistance.
It is an opportunity to directly engage with community members in a much more personal manner than as a tourist. The paired labor opportunities enable volunteers to spend quality time with community members and learn about what life is like within the community.
“The paired labor opportunities enable volunteers to spend quality time with community members and learn about what life is like within the community.”– Mike Harris, Volunteer Team Leader
Also, meeting volunteers from all over the United States and from other countries is another benefit of this program. Bonding and working as a team is extremely rewarding! I know that many of the volunteers I have served with made life-time connections and friends that continue to this day. The sense of accomplishment is well worth the service program contribution. Simple tasks such as constructing a fence, painting a school, serving lunches to senior citizens, and socializing with elders in assisted living settings can provide life-time memories not only for the volunteer, but community members. If you want to connect with local people and in many cases learn of their amazing personal stories, the Global Volunteers experience will provide this.
Derrick Herndon, one of the volunteers I served with, captured the Global Volunteer experience perfectly with this journal entry: “As I close out my contribution to this journal, I am brought back to what nearly all of us have noted during our stay. The reputation of Global Volunteers here. We are recognized by people here without saying a word and when they know who we are, there is a sense of gratitude and acknowledgment that you can see in their faces even before they say it. I hope we have done good here. I think that we have. And as we leave my desire is that the reputation that has been earned by those who came before has been furthered by our own efforts.”
“One of the things that draws me to Global Volunteers is our philosophy to serve the partner community by addressing the needs that they have identified as a community. They tell us what they want and need, not the other way around. Therefore, we are providing services to them that are truly needed and valued by the community. Also, the importance of volunteers participating in shared work experiences (working side by side with community members) significantly enriches the volunteer experience.”– Mike Harris, Volunteer Team Leader
What is your favorite aspect of leading teams in Montana?
To paraphrase the lyrics from the Barbra Streisand song, “People, people who need people, are the luckiest people in the world!” I just love interacting with not only Blackfeet community members, but also with the volunteers. I learn so much with every team leading experience.
You learn something new every day, whether it be spending an evening with Tom Crawford experiencing a traditional sweat and learning about Blackfeet spiritual beliefs, taking a sunset ride with Chuck DeBoo on his ranch learning about the Blackfeet Reservation land ownership rights, interacting with residents at the Blackfeet Care Center to learn about their personal life stories and experiences, and meeting elders at Eagle Shield.
My team leading experiences have enabled me to meet and interact with volunteers from all different parts of the United States, as well as meet volunteers from Mexico, Japan, Saudi Arabia, and Canada. Spending a week with these people, working together, and interacting broadens my perspective on the world and enables me to consider different points of view.
I would be remiss if I did not mention the daily accomplishments of the team. The simple act of interacting with community members is very rewarding. Projects such as painting a building, constructing a fence, working with children at the day camp, helping to stock the food bank are just a few of the memorable experiences.
What can you say to people who are thinking about joining a service program for the first time?
Take your vacation time with your family or personally to another level! Sign up for a Global Volunteers program. You will not be disappointed! Not only will you be immersed in the community and learn about another culture, but you will meet new people on a personal level that is unlike a typical vacation. My experience tells me that when your service program is over, you will be happy to return home, but will be saddened to leave the community members and fellow volunteers that you have met. There will be a sense of pride in the contributions you have made, an appreciation of what you personally have, and a desire to educate others about the community you have served.
“You will not be disappointed! Not only will you be immersed in the community and learn about another culture, but you will meet new people on a personal level that is unlike a typical vacation. There will be a sense of pride in the contributions you have made, an appreciation of what you personally have, and a desire to educate others about the community you have served.”– Mike Harris, Volunteer Team Leader
What is one of your favorite experiences in service?
One of the most moving experiences I have enjoyed in Blackfeet Nation was the day that I was dropping off team members at Eagle Shield for their work projects. On my way to Eagle Shield, I noticed a community member who was working on a highway paving project directing traffic. It was an unusually hot, sunny, and dusty day. After dropping off the volunteers, I stopped at a nearby gas station to refuel the Global Volunteers van. Thinking of the highway worker, I purchased a bottle of Gatorade and on my way to check how one of the teams was doing, stopped and gave the drink to the worker. He was extremely appreciative and I was stunned when he handed me a small arrowhead that he had been carving. He thanked me again and said, “This is a good trade.” His gesture literally choked me up. I cherish that small arrowhead and display it very prominently in my Blackfeet room at home.
What Volunteers Have Said About Mike
“Mike is extremely dedicated and dependable. He was all about making things work. He is a selfless leader. His confidence and competence put me at ease.” – Gabrielle Mack
“Mike was a great leader, always beyond our needs. I truly think that part of that amazing experience was because he was in charge. His love for the Blackfeet community is sincere and you can feel his passion and the commitment for their well-being. Thanks, Mike.” – Elexis Martinez Figueredo
“Very passionate about the work we do here with this population. Very culturally aware and sensitive. Very understanding and inspiring leader.” – Victoria Vasquez
“Mike has a passion for working and interacting with the Blackfeet community. He has to juggle a lot of responsibilities and he is a very competent administrator. He adapts to a changing environment and deals well with people.” – Roy Schwarz
Mike’s Background and Dedication to Service
Mike recently retired after a 40-year career in public education in New Jersey. During his career, he taught students with special needs, was a director of special services, an elementary school principal, and a superintendent of schools in Southampton, New Jersey for 16 years. Mike’s career accomplishments included being selected as a recipient a Governor’s Teacher of the Year Recognition Program in 1988 and as the Burlington County Superintendent of Schools in 2017.
Mike is a life-long resident of New Jersey and has been married to his beautiful wife, Debbie, for 39 years. He is the proud father of two grown children, Jim and Alyssa, who are both educators. He is also the adoring and doting grandfather to Lily and Leo Harris. The family includes two Chihuahuas named Piper and Little Cow that are his faithful companions.
Since his retirement, Mike has enjoyed woodworking, reading and learning about the Blackfeet Indians, attending Philadelphia Phillies games, rooting for the Philadelphia Eagles, and spending time at his getaway condo in Folly Beach, South Carolina. His hobbies include collecting Blackfeet art and artifacts created by local artists on the reservation and he has dedicated an entire room in his home to display the collection.
Mike periodically checks in with Blackfeet community members and continues to enhance his knowledge about the history and culture of the community that he is passionate about serving. Part of his motivation for serving the Blackfeet community is the opportunity to expose participating volunteers to community members, educate them on the history of the Blackfeet, enhance their understanding of the community, and hopefully inspire them to be advocates of the community when they return home. As a former educator, Mike especially enjoys working with children who participate as volunteers with their families.
To join a team under Mike’s leadership, chat with a program expert now.