Special education teacher Lynn O’Brien of Indiana volunteered on her first service program last summer on the Blackfeet reservation in Montana. Her mother had worked with indigenous populations in Montana as a young woman in the 1950s, and that drew curiosity in her. Here, she describes what her service projects were like and how she was able to use her professional skills working at a summer camp for children. She also writes about learning about Blackfeet culture and sharing in these experiences with like-minded teammates. Read on for details.
by Lynn O’Brien
The Glacier National Park area is one of my favorite places to visit. When I read about the opportunity to volunteer close to the park, I made doing this a priority. During visits to the park, I read about the Native American culture that continues to live in the area, and am familiar with the plight and treatment of Native Americans that occurred in the history of our country. My 85-year-old mother went out to this area as a young girl with her mom to visit a nun who worked at one of the missions. Back then, people thought that making people assimilate into another culture was the only way to go. She remembers washing a lot of dishes and helping with food prep for the two weeks that she was there. It was a very long, hot, dusty bus ride from Milwaukee all the way out to Montana in the early 1950’s. She had told me this story, and it drew a curiosity from me.
In my day job, I am a special needs teacher by trade, and I knew that spending a week on the reservation helping with the local recreational program was right up my alley. Being outdoors with kids, learning from them, while helping them seemed like a win, and it was. For a few years, I ran an outdoor education camp in my town in Indiana. I was looking forward to hiking, helping with fishing, and supervising kids during swim time. On our bus rides to sacred sites that week, I was able to sit next to kids who didn’t have friends or that didn’t seem to know anyone else. Easing their fears about group activities by being a calm presence seemed helpful to them. It started connections that lasted the week. A smile here and there from one of them as they were engaging in swimming or hiking showed positive growth. There are many commonalities between the Native American children and those that I work with at my high school. Because of my background, I have a bit of an understanding of how to work with children who sometimes can be difficult due to autism and/or their home situations. Holding judgement is a necessary skill, and children in any situation can “sniff out” people who aren’t generally interested in them. It was helpful for me to interact with a Blackfeet colleague, with who we could mutually share about struggles and suggestions for working with children. We found that children all over the United States have much in common. They all need to feel wanted and important. The recreational program in Browning provides a safe environment for kids to experience and learn.
“In my day job, I am a special needs teacher by trade, and I knew that spending a week on the reservation helping with the local recreational program was right up my alley. Being outdoors with kids, learning from them, while helping them seemed like a win, and it was.”– Lynn O’Brien, first-time volunteer in Montana
“On our bus rides to sacred sites that week, I was able to sit next to kids who didn’t have friends or that didn’t seem to know anyone else. Easing their fears about group activities by being a calm presence seemed helpful to them. It started connections that lasted the week. A smile here and there from one of them as they were engaging in swimming or hiking showed positive growth.”– Lynn O’Brien, first-time volunteer in Montana
I was not expecting to be with other like-minded people who step up without being asked, who are eager to learn about others and their stories, and to work with Native American teachers. Volunteers were able to choose from several projects offered that week. Several worked at a food distribution center, others helped at food bank, some helped at the ranch, and then there was my group who helped with the rec summer camp. Our group had some high school students that came with their parents. It was incredible to see the growth these students had in a week. One family decided to vacation with Global Volunteers instead of taking a vacation tour, as they wanted to really immerse themselves in the culture while being able to give back. All of the volunteers during my week in Browning were very respectful of the culture, having a genuine interest in the people there, as well as the people on our team. We felt warmth and were valued by the people we interacted with all week, so much so that they invited us to a Sundance. In the evenings, volunteers visited with local Native Americans, listening to stories passed down from generation to generation. On a special evening, we were able to watch a Native American dressed in traditional clothing dance.
For my “me week,” in 2021, I chose to spend it in a new environment, trying to contribute in a positive way while learning more about western Montana and its people. It was just what I needed for rejuvenation for the next school year ahead.
“It was just what I needed for rejuvenation for the next school year ahead.”– Lynn O’Brien
Lynn will be serving on her second service program with Global Volunteers in July in St. Lucia.
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