Q&A with VISIONS Leader Nick Nelson

Nick Nelson led VISIONS adventures for five summers and continues to pursue a life of service, most recently with a disaster relief nonprofit aiding displaced Ukrainians. Let’s meet Nick!

As a former director of our Montana Blackfeet program, Nick Nelson knows all the ins and outs of one of our most popular and transformative adventures. After his first season leading VISIONS Mississippi (a now retired site), Nick spent four years guiding participants through summers of service and adventure on the Blackfeet Reservation in northwestern Montana. 

Today, Nelson lives close by, just a few miles outside of Whitefish, Montana, in a cabin he built by hand over the past two years. “VISIONS actually played a big part in how I came to be here,” he says, “as I now live just on the other side of the Continental Divide from the Blackfeet Nation. My friends in Browning are just two hours away!”

VISIONS Director of Outreach, chatted with Nick about his time with VISIONS, his work today and how he believes his summers with VISIONS impacted his life moving forward. Let’s meet Nick!

How did you first get involved with VISIONS?

When I found VISIONS, I was looking for a job where I could combine my disparate skills and interests. I loved working with my hands and building things, I loved to travel and experience new places and cultures, and since graduating college I had been leading youth programs seasonally in California and Oregon and really enjoyed the teaching aspects of [that], as well as being able to create a positive group dynamic. I found VISIONS at just the right time, and got to do it all!

What was one of the most memorable times during your VISIONS experience?

I will never forget my first time being a part of the Sun Dance ceremony with the Blackfeet, out in the middle of the Great Plains, under the big Montana sky. It’s absolutely indescribable and burned into my memory.

What has the VISIONS experience taught you about yourself?

As a VISIONS director, you have a lot of responsibility—for participants’ safety, for the success of the program, for the well-being of your staff and for building and maintaining good relationships with our friends and partners on the reservation. You also have huge opportunities to guide the program, to improve it and make this experience the best that it can possibly be for the youth who come and join us. My experience with VISIONS taught me that I am up to the challenge, that I am equal to the responsibility and the opportunity. And it was never a static lesson, there’s no finish line, each season brought new doubts and uncertainties as well as new successes.

Tell us a little about the nonprofit you recently worked with, All Hands and Hearts.

All Hands and Hearts is a nonprofit that engages in disaster relief around the world through volunteer power. They believe that anyone can come and contribute to a project directly, regardless of age or experience. The project that I helped out on was based in Przemysl, Poland, and focused on building capacity to help address the needs of the millions of Ukrainians displaced by the war. Specifically, we were working to renovate a section of a school building that was uninsulated and unfinished, to get it ready for winter use for refugee housing as winter settles in and more people are displaced from their homes. 

This was my first time working with All Hands and Hearts, and it was also their first project to address a situation brought on by conflict rather than a natural disaster, and I have to say I was impressed by the organization and the people working to make it all happen.

What was daily life like?

Our little community of volunteers lived in a house out in the Polish countryside, just a short drive from the school building we were working to renovate. We worked six days a week, waking up at 6:00 am to be rolling out to the job site by 7:00 am. On the job we faced many challenges, from a very complicated roof structure to working with unfamiliar materials, but everyone I worked with had a great attitude and work ethic. They all wanted to be there and do the best job that they could. 

We would wrap up at the job site around 3:30 pm and most afternoons we would have a team meeting to go over the happenings of the day, welcome new volunteers and say goodbye to the ones heading out. After that, we’d have evenings free to relax and unwind. Someone made a ping pong table out of a sheet of OSB and that was a great source of entertainment. Dinners were catered by a local restaurant, and they were incredible!

How did you get involved with them?

I have been interested in working in disaster relief and response since I first dipped my toes in at the age of 19 during my year of service with AmeriCorps NCCC [National Civilian Community Corps], where we were primarily focused on assisting with recovery efforts from Hurricane Katrina in the Gulf States. Since then, I’ve kept my eyes peeled for opportunities to stay involved with that type of work in a way that fits in with the rest of my life. 

Last year when I came across All Hands and Hearts in a simple Google search, it all lined up for me as an opportunity to put my skills in construction to work in a community of volunteers that felt familiar and right to me—from my time in AmeriCorps, and later with VISIONS—to do my small part to help out in a terrible situation.

What do you feel makes VISIONS special or unique? 

The things that impressed me about VISIONS when I first heard about it are still the things that I believe make VISIONS special and unique. First and foremost, it’s incredible the amount of time that VISIONS has been operating in some of our program sites. They have worked on the Blackfeet Reservation for over three decades, and there’s no substitute for that [when it comes to] developing strong community relationships. 

Secondly, I think the fact that VISIONS programs are tech-free is so awesome, and only continues to be more important year after year. Having the space to have real, in-person, human interactions, totally free from the quick dopamine hits of technological distraction, is a truly unique experience in our modern world. I believe it’s as important as anything else that happens on a VISIONS program.

Finally, being a part of this particular global community is pretty special. Just last month I was traveling in the Dominican Republic and had the chance to go have lunch with Santos and Leyri, who both work with the VISIONS DR program. I’d never met either of them, but Santos invited me to his home because we’re both a part of this VISIONS community. How cool is that?

What does the word community mean to you?

To me, community happens wherever two or more people come together with a common goal. That goal can be as small as a conversation, or as big as making the world a better place.

What’s the greatest strength you have to offer the world?

Calm, creative problem-solving under pressure.

What would you like to be remembered for?

If anyone remembers me and says I made some small positive difference in their life, I think that’d be awesome.

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

I guess I would just say thank you for your part in creating the VISIONS community. Whether you work in the office or in the field, or if you’re a participant, I think it’s incredible you’ve chosen to do this with your time. It’s not an easy decision, you’re leaving easy comforts behind in the pursuit of something better, and I think that’s one of the best decisions you can possibly make for yourself.

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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