In the fifth of a series of “Ripple Effect” stories, a volunteer referral led physician and mother of two, Laura Lee Swan, to a needed change for her family from their “Covid funk.” Following a Google link and social media search, she found Global Volunteer Tenley Zinke, who recommended volunteering on the Blackfeet Reservation in Montana, That convinced Laura Lee that this was the opportunity her family had been looking for and needed so badly. Read on for her firsthand account of a journey of renewal and reflection – and Tenley’s follow up after their journey of service.
by Laura Lee Swan
After being cooped up for two-plus years (and on the verge of turning 50), I needed a change. I needed something big, something different, something (anything!) that would thrust my family of four out of our Covid funk.
I had no idea what, though. I knew I wanted to go away – somewhere far, but domestic. I knew I wanted to go with my husband and children. It had to be somewhere none of us had ever been before. And following the calamity that was/is Covid, I wanted this trip to be one of service. Like everyone in the world, my family was traumatized by Covid. But I knew we were still FAAARRR better off than most. It was time to regain some perspective.
I began by Googling “family volunteer trips.” Global Volunteers kept popping up. Our limiting factors were: we were a family of four with two children (age 14 and 11), the best timing was mid- to late June, and we wanted to keep it domestic. I did not expect to find an experience that involved two places I had always wanted to go but had never been: Montana and an Indian Reservation. I seriously could not have dreamed up a better opportunity.
“I seriously could not have dreamed up a better opportunity.”– Laura Lee Swan, Montana volunteer
Outside of the Global Volunteer staff, I gained a lot of insight from the Global Volunteers Montana program website, including the blog entries written by past volunteers. One particular blog entry piqued my interest. It was that of a mother who volunteered with her two tween/teen children. I did not yet realize the relationship Global Volunteers has with its volunteers. If I had, I would have reached out to Global Volunteers to ask for the blogger’s contact info. Instead, I took matters into my own hands. I found said blogger (whose name is not terribly common) on LinkedIn, sent a message, and within days we spoke on the phone. She raved. She had nothing but positive things to say. She described a well-run program, a trustworthy organization, and an unforgettable experience that she and her two children continue to learn from. My fears were allayed and I felt ready to launch.
“It was time to regain some perspective.”– Laura Lee Swan, Montana volunteer
Once the possibility became real (the program had openings during our available weeks!), I had to ensure this would actually work for my family. My first questions went to the staff at Global Volunteers. Emily Johansen answered my many phone calls and emails both promptly and kindly. She took the time to describe the program in Montana, then put me in touch with others who spent more time “on the ground”. I spoke with Director of Domestic Operations Peter Kelly at length about the program in general, and more specifically about COVID on the Blackfeet Reservation (this was going to be our first adventure beyond our home city in more than two years….I was scared!). Volunteer Preparation Coordinator Stephen Raja and I emailed back and forth ensuring we were prepared administratively. Emily Wood, Samantha Dick, and Team Leader Karen Wark were others I emailed with before the program started. I cannot speak highly enough of the Global Volunteers staff who helped me feel confident and ready.
What happened next is too hard for me to describe. I’m still processing our week on the Blackfeet Reservation. Suffice it to say, it was a wonderful experience. For all four of us. In different ways. And I would do it again!
A Follow-up from Global Volunteers Referree and Referrer Tenley Zinke:
Like many parents of young children, and as a working mother with a demanding career in particular, I had spent more than a decade putting my family and career ahead of everything – so when my children reached an age that I felt we could, as a family, seek out experiences that would broaden our horizons through travel to unfamiliar places, allow us to gain some perspective about how other people live and the circumstances that shape their reality, while giving our time to serve others, I was immediately inspired when meeting a woman while on a trip to Montana who told me about her participation in a program volunteering with the Blackfeet Nation with her three children a year or so prior.
She is someone who has volunteered with many different programs and has sent her children abroad individually through various private and not-for-profit organizations, and she had concluded that the Global Volunteers opportunity to be immersed in the community with the Blackfeet is unique. I knew immediately that I would be doing my research about how to sign up with my kids in the following year.
I spoke to Global Volunteers’ Coordinator Julie Costa on the phone several times, who provided me with a lot of materials about the philosophy of service with Global Volunteers and about things to be aware of when volunteering with the Blackfeet, including cultural nuances to be aware of, so I felt well prepared and had a good understanding of expectations.
Everyone having the same guidance as to how to respectfully approach the community as a volunteer, there to serve at the invitation of the community and under the direction of locals, was so important – ideas and expectations that were reinforced during the induction on the first full-day.
As I have shared in prior blog posts, our time serving the Blackfeet changed our lives.
So when I received a message on LinkedIn from someone who asked if I would be willing to speak to his wife, Laura Lee Swan, who was considering volunteering as a family with their two children who were around the age of my children when we volunteered, I was more than willing to speak of our experiences as a family, answer any questions she had, and how I came to the decision this program was right for us so she could decide if it was also right for them.
I was delighted to receive a message from Laura while on the reservation that their family’s experience was exceeding their expectations even after speaking to me and thanking me for helping her make the decision to go.
She now has told her own story in this blog post about her process of making the decision, which was thoroughly researched and thoughtfully considered. Now that she has experienced for herself the indescribable connections, joys and rewards of having the privilege of being welcomed by such an extraordinary community and people, she can understand why I unhesitatingly proffered my story to help her take the leap of faith and go on such an extraordinary journey. These stories are what will allow more people to know about and partake in what is a unique and on-going service program built on long-standing relationships and trust build by Global Volunteers over decades. There is nothing else like it and I encourage anyone who is considering it to speak to as many people as they need to make them feel comfortable that this is an opportunity not to be missed.
More on family volunteering in Montana: