Q&A with VISIONS Leader Marvin Mastin

Meet long-distance runner, outdoor enthusiast and longtime VISIONS leader Marvin Mastin!

Veteran leader Marvin Mastin led his first VISIONS program in 1992, on the Montana Blackfeet Reservation. He has enhanced each service adventure with his sharp wit, keen eye for observation, positivity and dogged work ethic. Originally from Prairie Village, Kansas, Marvin has helmed programs to the Montana Blackfeet, British Virgin Islands, Northern Cheyenne and Vietnam, most recently serving with us back in Montana in 2022. 

Although Marvin hasn’t worked with VISIONS each & every summer since 1992, his involvement has been constant. He’s helped facilitate leader trainings along the way and has been on a roll the last few summers, taking time off his regular job to return to the field and work a few VISIONS programs. We are excited to have him back again, for Montana Blackfeet 3 this summer!

His two daughters, Maya and Milan, are former VISIONS participants. Today, Marvin lives in Kansas City, where he works for the global architecture and design firm Populous. The role affords him “a life where I’m still able to take risks and learn, if you boil it down,” he said. “I feel very blessed and happy.”

Marvin maintains a growing collection of VISIONS paraphernalia, from brochures and DVDs to notes from the field, gifts from community members and albums of old photos. A skilled writer, he also kept a lively journal throughout his time as program leader in Vietnam (2008). 

Read on for Marvin’s VISIONS story, the impact the experiences have had on him and what he’s up to today.

 2017, Photo Credit: Rick Mayo / Mile 90 Photography

Marvin 1992

How did you join VISIONS?

I was working as an outdoor educator [in the early 1990s]. My dream was to work for Outward Bound, and I had done an internship for them in Denver and loved it. I was passionate about the outdoors and the outdoor community—climbing, backpacking, everything—and one of my best friends had just gotten hired there. We had done a lot of the same things and had very similar backgrounds (plus I’d done my internship), so I thought I was a shoe-in. But I got denied.  

But as the cliche goes, “a closed door opens many more.” I received a newsletter from the Association of Outdoor Recreation and Education in the mail, and I must have looked through it half a dozen times until “Montana Indian Reservation” caught my eye. I had always been extremely interested in Native American culture and had studied it a little. I read the whole thing and saw all their programs in the Caribbean and South America, and I applied right away. I got an interview with Jo [Pinaire, VISIONS Founder & Former Director], and ended up getting hired. 

I was captured. Yes, it had outdoor education, which was my passion at the time, but really my heart is with community service and connection with people, seeing other people have the lightbulb go off—an ability they discovered about themselves, a connection to a community or someone else—and the idea of giving.

On top of that [was] the cultural immersion part. Being able to go to these different reservations and do things I’d always dreamed about, like the sweat lodges, and being able to hear Native languages and not be a tourist, being able to be a part of, and get a very intimate glimpse at, something that I was so fascinated with and in so many ways admired. 

I was like… This is it.

The next summer I applied for Outward Bound again. This time I was accepted. I turned it down and went back to VISIONS, and never looked back. I can’t imagine my life without having had this experience.

I was able to work a summer with Janelle (my wife), and when I had my daughters I couldn’t wait for them to get old enough to be able to have the opportunity to do VISIONS. I directed two programs with Maya and she did another one on her own, Milan was also able to do one on her own. How special that was to have my own kids be able to partake in VISIONS. Maya is now 23 and I’m encouraging her to apply for VISIONS this summer as a leader.

Looking back on my life in general, and looking at my participation in VISIONS and how it started and evolved, I feel so lucky to have been part of it. 

How has VISIONS shaped your future?

Maya, Marvin, Janelle, Milan

I think the biggest thing is to take risks. VISIONS is about taking risks, and providing an arena where you can take risks safely, whether it’s an emotional risk, an interpersonal risk, a skill-based risk or an adventure risk. Signing up for VISIONS is “Step 1” of taking a risk.

And for me being an adult is still so much about trying to take risks, and not to be afraid. My current job [at Populous] is all about taking risks, and is a lot like being the director of a VISIONS program. I try to manage my team exactly how I managed my teams in the field. Being positive, leading by example, not expecting them to do anything I wouldn’t do myself. The way you treat people, talk to people and listen—in VISIONS that’s so important. There are so many aspects encapsulated in a VISIONS program that can help one in school, family and personal life. There’s so much cross-over.

What does the word “community” mean to you?

[A] community fosters a time and a place where everyone has a chance to hear and to tell their story.

Maya, Mike Running Deer and Marvin in Lame Deer, MT

Maya, Mike Running Deer and Marvin in Lame Deer, MT

What is most memorable about your VISIONS experience?

The fact that I was able to be with my daughter Maya and direct a program with her [participating], that was so special. The other thing was to be able to go to Vietnam and go to the “Hanoi Hilton”, where my dad was held prisoner for almost four years. It was part of my coming to terms with what the Vietnam War did to my family. My dad was shot down when I was one year old, came back when I was seven, and we didn’t know if he was alive or dead for three years. He was in six different prison camps. 

It’s 50 years later and it’s still emotional for me. To be able to talk to a guy my age whose mother fought against the French and the Americans and get a perspective from a Vietnamese point of view, and then to get to work with the Vietnamese kids there that were suffering from birth defects and the effects of Agent Orange… 

It was 25 years after my dad was released as a prisoner, and VISIONS gave me the opportunity to go and see with my own eyes, to create a new narrative – one that was a little healthier – and helped me heal. I took a copy of the letter my mom got when he was shot down with me to Vietnam. I read it to the kids our last night there.

What did the VISIONS experience teach you about yourself?

Marvin 2022 cred: John Knepper / Mile 90 Photography

That I don’t know as much as I think I know, and I need to listen to other people’s stories, and not just tell my own. 

What do you feel is one of your greatest strengths that you have to offer the world?

[This isn’t] very unique, but again, my story and my experience. [After] realizing that not everyone has had the opportunity to have so many things happen to them and to be able to share, I now have a responsibility to give back.

What would you like to be remembered for?

Hopefully kindness, and the power of light-heartedness, and as someone that was able to connect people.

What do you hope to be doing 10 years from now?

I really want to be still moving, still learning, I want to be remodeling sprinter vans and then drive them for awhile and then sell them, really trick ‘em out. Also, it would be great if I’m in a position to encourage people.

What would you like to say to other members of the VISIONS community?

Take what you’ve learned and what you gained, take it back with you, and keep it going.

Anything else to add?

I don’t think I’ve ever really seen people express passion at quite the extent, to the same degree as I have witnessed people like yourself [Amanda], and many others [within VISIONS], express passion, with their job or their life. 

That’s ultimately what it boils down to. Witnessing that and having an opportunity to do that for this amount of time, and at that level… You don’t find that very often.

Marvin 1996

Marvin 2022

Owen Clarke is a writer for VISIONS. A career outdoor journalist, his work appears in 30+ international magazines, including Iron & Air, Climbing, Outside, Rock and Ice, SKI, Trail Runner and The Outdoor Journal. He is also the executive editor of Skydiving Source and Indoor Skydiving Source.

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