Reflections on Running Travel Programs During Covid

AND THE BEAUTY OF SERVICE UNDER THE BIG SKY IN MONTANA

 

Dear VISIONS Community-

It’s been quite a year! (Or two.) There have been times when even my bones felt tired keeping a travel and immersion organization going during a global pandemic, but the laughter, good times and connections made by our kids and leaders have been redemptive. The magic of good people coming together and transcending hard times is why we choose to be here. Seeing young people drop their phones to pick up shovels and hammers, work through things face-to-face with sincerity and vulnerability instead of through social media, and aesthetically learn about the world around them is powerful stuff.

Like so many, I have felt weathered at times during this period of history. It’s at those moments, however, when the passion is most pronounced for what we do at VISIONS. To provide experiences where kids can slip into a parallel universe that emphasizes solutions over issues, simple living over materialism, bonding moments over frenetic schedules, and inclusiveness over exclusivity is why my valued colleagues and I look forward to VISIONS 34th season, uninterrupted even during 2020.

Katherine at Farm

Something especially delightful these couple years has been the start of our Farm & Ranch program in Bozeman, right up the road from the year-round office team. The farm has been a dream for many years, as our hearts are as much in the camp of sustainability and climate solutions as they are in cultural exchange. When all of our international and Native American Reservation programs had to close down in 2020 due to covid, the farm program made its debut.

VISIONS leader training in Montana

Many of the kids who attend the farm program are interested in working with Westerners who are doing old-fashioned, yet deeply innovative work to preserve the land, draw down carbon, and connect people more with their food sources. Regardless of each student’s interests, it’s fair to say that all have left with a sense of what it means to build harmony between ourselves and the planet that supports us.

At the Blackfeet with tribal member Dale Pepion (who passed in 2019)

That is no small thing, particularly because that sort of knowledge endures, helps make a person whole, and can shape one’s future in meaningful ways. This includes real-life activities and learning around Project Drawdown, which is cool stuff, for sure (and our farmer, rancher and conservationist partners all seem to agree).

Just as tethered to our spirits is the Montana Blackfeet Reservation, in northwestern Montana and bordering Glacier National Park. We started working with the tribe 31 years ago, in 1991. Every time I pass into the border of the Blackfeet Nation, a spell is cast over my senses and I am grateful to be moving through such an incredible landscape and welcomed by this community.

On the Blackfeet program, VISIONS kids and leaders live at a conservation ranch, known in recent years as the Yellow Bird Woman Sanctuary, named for one of the most renowned Native Americans of modern times. (If you don’t know about Elouise Cobell, I encourage you to read about her here.) We are the summer caretakers at the ranch, but most projects take place in and around Browning, the main reservation town, where needs are apparent and our friendships well-established. Projects include constructing wheelchair ramps at the homes of elders, helping to build the Sundance ceremony facilities, working with the food bank, and more. Afternoon and weekend activities range from horseback riding and rafting to cultural workshops and hosting guest speakers.

SERVICE UNDER THE BIG SKY

As the third largest country in the world, the United States encompasses a prodigious variety of landscapes and diverse communities. At a time when teens can choose almost anywhere on the globe to engage in a service program, some might overlook North America. After all, the U.S. has the largest, most prosperous economy in the world and ostensibly less need for community service. But the facts prove more complicated, especially on Native American reservations and in rural communities. Students who choose to volunteer in and engage with communities in the U.S. will experience cultures startlingly different from their own and a contextual understanding of the conflicted history of this powerful nation.

As always, thank you to the VISIONS community of students and parents, past and present leaders, our host communities, local partners and friends.

And if you aren’t yet officially part of the VISIONS community, welcome!

Put Down Roots with VISIONS

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