A life-changing Venaver trip to Browning, Montana. Why Are We Here? In Montana. In Browning, specifically. The trip has often been described as a service trip simply to tutor kids in one of the most impoverished regions of the nation. There are a few shortcomings from this statement. 1. Immersion students come to the De […]
A life-changing Venaver trip to Browning, Montana.
Why Are We Here?
In Browning, specifically.
The trip has often been described as a service trip simply to tutor kids in one of the most impoverished regions of the nation. There are a few shortcomings from this statement.
1. Immersion students come to the De La Salle Blackfeet (DLSB) school regularly. As in, there is a constant cycle of students coming in and out of the school to help. Not that there is a new group every week, but maybe one group every few weeks. This was never specified to us.
2. The kids are not incapable of achieving work without the help of immersion students. We are sent to help in the classroom, connect with the kids, and be role models.
And 3. The trip exists to open the eyes of immersion students. We were sent to learn about the hardships of the Blackfeet people and ourselves. The trip is called “Venaver,” not “Venatrabajar”. It means come and see, not come and work.
Getting to Nowhere
We took off from the Sacramento Airport at 7:00 am and flew into Kalispell, Montana via Seattle Sunday night around 6 PM. Despite spending a whole day to get into Montana, we were still not quite at our destination. Kalispell happens to be home to Browning’s local airport, and it is about a two hour drive away. We intended to drive to Browning that evening, but due to a snow storm, we were advised to stay the night in Kalispell. The next day, we waited till 11 am for the snow to be cleared off the highway so we could make the drive.
The Beautiful Town of Browning, Montana
As we got close to Browning, we drove through Glacier National Park, a beautiful landscape covered in a thick overcast, a river, and thousands of massive pines, all topped with a layer of snow.
As we left Glacier, the Sun broke through the overcast, the massive pines turned to plains, but the snow remained. Over the next few days, the snow would melt, and by the time we left, the town was naked, it’s barren plains exposed for us to see.
The town has one of the highest funeral rates in the nation, while maintaining a population of only 1,016 people. The alcoholism in the town brings the most death: drunk driving accidents and freezing to death are commonplace; people get drunk, head nowhere, and end up falling asleep out in the cold.
In 2012, 40% of children born were born with Fetal Alcohol Syndrome, up from 20% from 2000*. The town is in despair. Most people, especially kids, spend every day thinking only about survival — nothing is more pressing. Their mortality is omnipresent.
The poorest neighborhood is full of houses that are essentially shacks, with holes for windows and doors. These houses are brown, not because of paint, but because of whatever brown residue that may never be cleaned off. Another neighborhood is filled with houses that all look the same. I’m not being hyperbolic — the houses all actually look exactly the same: two story, tiny, outdoor garage, poor-looking insulation, and a few windows.
It’s interesting that I use the word neighborhood, because in reality, this town has nothing that looks like a neighborhood. The roads have been paved on the rolling hills, and poorly constructed houses have been plopped here and there. There are no backyards, in some areas a front lawn cannot be distinguished from the side of the road. It is frontier living.
Night & Day Pt. 1 (Introduction)
Since I’ve come back home from Montana, people have tended to ask a lot the same questions: “Was it cold?” “Did you have fun?” “Are you different?” “What were the kids like?”
Some of the questions are easy to answer, but most of my answers are complicated, involving a lot of context.
The most complicated and most asked questions always regard the kids from De La Salle Blackfeet School. I often give short answers in an attempt to be honest — statements like “they didn’t look engaged” or “they were the sweetest kids” don’t really apply.
These kids are as complicated as adults, exposing altering versions of their personalities depending on what they have to do, and how they’re feeling. As described, they face issues the CB community generally doesn’t encounter: extreme poverty, alcoholism, mental disorders, and an abnormally high mortality rate.
So what effect does a life in Browning have on a young student? The children wonder if their parents or grandparents will come home that night. They wonder if they will eat dinner that night. Concerns of the outside, competitive, world are weightless to them.
DLSB does something special though. It tries to gives kids a place to go in their tumultuous world. Mr. Garesche, the 6th Grade teacher, described it simply — he said the kids have a lot of problems, and they bring them all to school.
When we first came to the school, it was already half way through Monday. We were told to choose what classes we would aid, and I decided to help the 7th grade class. I tend to work better with older kids, and I remember 7th grade as being a particularly formative year for me. Frank Huntington (’15) and Alex Lloyd (’15) chose to help the 7th grade as well, and just a few minutes later we headed over to our class.
When we walked in, it was a little awkward. The teacher, Mr. Joyce, seemed a little caught off guard to have us come in halfway through the day, but we introduced ourselves to the class and they introduced themselves to us.
Immediately after walking in, a boy wanted me to sit next to him. His name was Tyree. He called me brother, and throughout the trip he continued to call me brother, or cousin, or Mexican — that seemed to please him. That first day he kept bobbing his head, nodding, and smiling. He made me feel comfortable in a slightly awkward situation.
The kids were given worksheets to work on as a Bill Nye video played on YouTube. Tyree asked me about the spelling of several words, one of which was “lightning”.
When the video ended, I caught a glimpse of the class. Mr. Joyce tried to go through the worksheet with the class and cover all the answers, waiting for anyone to answer.
Some kids weren’t paying any attention. Some watched him but didn’t know what was happening. Others were in their entirely own world, staring off into their own heads. Finally, the silence would be broken when Mr. Joyce finally answered his own question.
He seemed angry at the kids that first day. He was annoyed. And the kids didn’t mind.
I thought I started to have an idea of the class. I didn’t quite understand the kids, but I thought after a few more days I would.
I was wrong.
The next day, Alex, Frank, and I walked in expecting a similar environment, but when we came in, everyone was happy and actively participating. Mr. Joyce no longer seemed angry at the kids, and they were trying. They were raising their hands and taking part in what Mr. Joyce was trying to teach them.
I later learned that Monday was just not a very good day. That’s how it works at DLSB. There are the occasional bad days, and they can be rough.
From then on, I made more sense of the kids’ behavior every day.
One day during the kids PE class, we were playing Kickball and Mr. Joyce decided to come “up to bat” near the end. He had a good kick and ended up making it to 3rd base. He then had the choice of trying to run home or staying. He chose to run.
Right before he got to home plate, Tyree threw the ball at him in an attempt to get him out. I stopped the ball with my foot to make sure Mr. Joyce made it. Tyree then came at me, tall, sweaty, and angry. He pushed me backwards and continued to come at me. I told him to relax and calm down, and he stopped coming forward right before
I expected him to hit me. But by the time the next class came around, Tyree was calm, and it was like nothing had ever happened.
This is generally how the kids acted. Angry, sad, and aggressive in one moment, and then compliant, friendly, and calm in the next.
What does it take to move someone?
Logistically, that is a hard question to answer. One of the most vital components to inspiration is time, especially with younger people. Kids are not very receptive to good advice, even though childhood can be the most formative time in life, especially when life requires emotional fortitude.
We came to Browning to try and inspire the kids. They could use the tutoring, sure, but in terms of education, they are considerably behind any competitive school. No attempt at tutoring could truly push them above and beyond in the eyes of the rest of the world.
How could we do inspire with just a week’s time?
These kids see many immersion groups come through attempting to change their lives for the better. Could we really find a unique moment with even one student to try and help them? Do they require this intimate moment, or is our very presence enough?
We, the immersion students, grow so fond of these kids. We have an emotional investment in the kids and a genuine admiration for the work the staff does. But to them, we are faces they have seen before. We are in Browning for a week. We are tourists.
After spending a few nights in Browning, I think we all felt a little helpless. The realization that we would be only a blip in their lives made us feel worthless. Some of us even began to doubt if it was worth coming to Browning. Some wondered if there was any hope for any of the kids in Browning.
Mr. Harry Barnes, a local businessman, changed our perspective with a simple thank you and a message of hope.
Mr. Barnes gave a presentation on the economic climate of Browning. Near the end of his hour long talk to us, he mentioned that he gave the presentation as a small gift in return for what we were doing.
He told us that his generation, and those before his, were lost. He said God’s one gift to humans is the ability to dream, and he said that the Blackfeet had lost that gift. He said that DLSB, and the immersion students brought back the ability to dream for the kids. When they have dreams, they have purpose, purpose enough to keep them pushing.
We have left Browning, and we will probably never see anyone from the small town ever again. They will meet new people, find new influences,
Night & Day Pt. 3 (Home, Montana, & Life)
Throughout the trip, the phrase “night and day” was used a lot. I used it to describe how much of a shock the 7th grade class was, and I later used it to understand most things.
We had to let go of these kids. We will probably never talk to them again, never have a moment to just spend time with him, never a moment to let them know that they can do what they want to do in life.
I care about the 7th grade class. I want all of them to be happy and free from whatever shackles hold them down. But I have no certainty. I have no assurance that they will grow up to be model citizens.
I checked the DLSB website before writing this article, and I found a link on their website. It led to a video on Facebook in which the 7th grade basketball team, my students, rebounded multiple shots, passing the ball each time to a member of the opposing team who had down syndrome. I have hope.
These kids have the same right to opportunity as I do, yet because of where they are born, they face great trouble in finding opportunity. Even in the gift of life, there is the night and the day.
In Browning, we were all in the right place. We knew that we were doing the right thing, and our minds were focused on important things. We only spent our time helping other people and enjoying each others company.
During our last night in Browning, we talked about this. We wanted to make sure that our profound realizations wouldn’t be lost immediately upon returning to school.
From what I’ve experienced, and from what I remember, all components of life have the capacity for good and evil. It is a simple matter of choice, but only for those who have it.
It is night and day.
Driving through the snow every day to the Brothers Bunk — the nickname for our Montana residence — I always had a moment to take in what happened. The drive was 20 minutes long, and I remember exactly how it felt sitting in the car. I sat in the same seat everywhere we went, wearing the same coats, listening to the same music. Every time I listen to the album, I am right back in that seat watching the snow.
It was an amazing trip. I love the people I went on the trip with — Nia, Frank, Rosey, Izzie, Alex, Sarah, Nemesia, Vince, Katie, Gabbie, Mrs. Lystrup, Mr. Schumann — and I formed relationships I know I won’t ever forget.
Thinking of Browning is bittersweet. I am so grateful that I was able to go, but I miss it so much.
I miss the teachers, the students, the facilities, the climate. I feel warm inside thinking about it. It’s a strangely personal thing to share, but I don’t really mind.
*Facts taken from Harry Barnes’ presentation