Paden Dvoor spent four weeks last summer working out West on the Montana Blackfeet Indian Reservation. Paden was part of VISIONS high school community service program, and in a place where we started working 25 years ago. She took some time to reflect on the experience, including what it’s like to be the youngest participant in a group, and on being immersed in a completely different culture within her own country.

What stands out most about your experience on the Blackfeet ReservationMy summer on the reservation was the best summer of my life. I learned a lot about myself, things that I didn’t know before. That was probably the most valuable part. I gained independence through traveling on my own and taking care of myself and my personal living space. I also learned the way in which I work with others.

Every other day our group would have circle meetings, in which we talked about our feelings. I got to hear what my impression on others was, whether on the worksite or just in general. We were all flattered by compliments yet we also shared what we thought others could improve on. I was given time to think about myself and cope with my own feelings as well. I like to say that I learned what kind of person I want to be.

I figured out what my best self was and now I constantly strive to be that way. My growth was mostly due to the people on my trip and the positive community that we were exposed to. Everyone was so nice and so accepting. I was able to be myself and learn about myself.

The staffers also contributed to this incredible experience. They allowed us the chance to explore while having memorable, life changing excursions and projects lined up for us.

What accomplishment during your trip made you the most proudI think my greatest accomplishment in Montana was rock climbing. It was probably one of the scariest things I’ve ever done. It was unlike the superficial rock climbing I was used to. It was tough to work up the courage, but eventually I went up. I climbed up and up and once I could see a nearby lake I knew it was all worth it. The view was amazing and the feeling of accomplishment was even more amazing. I was encouraged by everyone there. It was a really good day.

What was it like being the youngest participant on your programI’m not going to lie, the days leading up to my departure from New York to Montana were filled with fear and anxiety. I was about to spend my summer with people up to four years older than me. I was afraid that I’d be left out of conversations and would be isolated. This was the complete opposite of how my trip turned out to be.

From the second I boarded the plane, my age became completely unimportant. It didn’t matter that I hadn’t lived a year of high school yet or that I was younger than everybody else. I was treated the same and it was amazing. It was so different than my life at home. Everything is separated by your age but on the program it didn’t matter. I couldn’t even tell you the ages of half of the people on my trip; it was not a crucial part of the experience.

I still stay in touch with most people and it’s crazy to see how our lives differ at home due to the age difference. Some of them are applying to colleges or talking about SAT scores, whereas I’m not even through my freshman year. VISIONS was outstanding in the fact that we are so isolated from our lives at home so things like age, gender, and ethnicity become meaningless.

Is there a project that stands out as your favoriteI’d have to say that my favorite project was fixing the entire front and back porch of Al Pott’s house. It was our group’s first real project and I became very attached to it. There was a little girl named Honey that lived in the house and every day while we worked she would come hang out with us. She was amazing and I loved spending time with her. She told us about her family and she shared her love of dogs with us. This one time she even jumped on my back and surprised me by smearing paint all over my face. Honey made this particular worksite very special.

What was your backpacking trip likeMy backpacking trip was unlike anything I’d ever done before. We were split into three different groups. Each group had about seven or eight teens and two staffers. My group had about a two to three hour hike up to a lake where we were camping. It was the most scenic place in the world. The hike uphill was very difficult. We took many stops, one of which was for lunch, and then we finally made it up. The backpacks were tightly packed and sat on our backs from head to thighs. I must say that my back hurt after this trip but it was definitely worth it because those three days were probably the best days of my time spent in Montana.

We had three tents: one for the boys, one for the girls, and one for the staffers. We all stayed up late and packed into one tiny tent playing cards, uno, and apples to apples. We all bonded so much. I became so close with those who were on my backpacking trip. For each meal we would filter water from the nearby lake and then boil it using fire. We made pasta, oatmeal, rice and beans, and pb&j sandwiches. I learned how to use a bear hang and how to hang it. We all climbed up onto and around trees pulling the bag filled with our food as high as we could to keep it away from the bears. We had the best time. This was my first backpacking trip, but hopefully it will not be my last.

How were the excursions on the reservation, such as the SundanceThe excursions were interesting and very insightful. We were able to spend time with the Native Americans and learn their culture. Within the first week, we went to a Sundance. Being a woman, I had to wear a long skirt as a sign of respect. The men and women were divided on two sides. There were constant drum beats and constant chants all around us.

I stood next to an elderly woman and each time we got up to dance she would correct me. This was very nice and I really appreciated her help. Now I (kind of) know how to dance correctly at a Sundance. These acts were present everywhere. They were accepting of us and instead of ignoring us they took us in and taught us their ways. We also went to an Indian Days parade where we saw horses ridden by important people in the town, trotting past us and throwing candy into the crowds.

It was nice to see all of the different businesses and different community members that were present in Browning. We went to a few powwows as well. It was nice to see the different foods that people eat and once again hear them chant and watch them dance. We got to play a few games and go on a few rides too. We also saw the running of the horses which was basically like a big horse race. These excursions were really fun and we got to learn about and interact with the Blackfeet culture.

Did you get a lot of time to interact with local community membersYes we got to spend a lot of time with local people. As I said, they were very accepting and enjoyed teaching us their ways of living. They welcomed us rather than thinking of us as intruders. We worked on their houses and their facilities so we had conversations with them every day. Our group made friends with many children that would come find us at our worksite and play with us. We would walk around town and go shopping for souvenirs and snacks. Here we would talk to workers and share with them what we were doing in their town.

What kind of things did you take away from your VISIONS experienceVISIONS is a program so different from every other community service program that I know of out there. With VISIONS, you’re not isolated from the surrounding culture and population. You become one with the community in which you work. It’s almost as if you live there. I loved staying in Montana. Not only was the work great but I learned a lot about myself.

You mentioned wanting to go to Cambodia this summer… what would you like to get out of that experienceI want to continue finding new things about myself and giving back to different communities. I think going to Cambodia this summer will take it to the next level. Last summer was my first time ever traveling alone. I loved it! I felt a real sense of independence and responsibility. I felt more mature than ever before.

Going to a place as far as Cambodia will bring back these feelings. Also, the culture in Cambodia should be amazing. I’m excited to see the architecture, eat the foods, and hear stories from the local people. I want to learn more about the world that I live in and help out as much as I can. I met great people from all around the world last summer and I’m looking forward to making close friends once again. It also wouldn’t hurt to go see Angkor Wat, one of the seven wonders of the world.

What do you hope to be doing ten years from nowHonestly, I’m in ninth grade so this will probably be different in about a month. But, in ten years I will almost be twenty five. I hope to be a college graduate working in the advertisement business. I like working with people and traveling around a lot. It would be cool to work with companies in the U.S. and help them advertise in other countries. I would meet very cool, interesting people. I hope to be happy and still have a curious mind.

VISIONS in The New York Times