The following is an excerpt from a Montana Public Radio interview with VISIONS Director Katherine Dayton
What is your role in the program?
One of my primary responsibilities is to oversee our international teen service programs in 14 locations around the world. This means keeping in close touch with our project partners during the off-season, helping to coordinate the logistics for smooth-running programs, and regularly being in touch with our summer leaders on the ground. Other responsibilities in my role as director are to manage overall operations of our year-round organization, as well as a lot of outreach with families, schools, teens and middle school students.
How did you initially get involved with Visions?
I first worked for VISIONS as a summer staff member on our program in the Dominican Republic. That was in 1996, just following my graduation from Dickinson College (Carlisle, PA). My undergraduate degrees were in Environmental Studies and Policy Studies and I also had spent a college year studying in Latin America. I was interested in spending more time in Latin America, and specifically in an immersion experience rather than as a tourist. After that first summer, I went on to direct VISIONS programs in Montana, Peru and Ecuador.
How have you been affected by your work in the program?
Working for VISIONS over the years has been an extraordinary experience. The friendships made with our community partners in locations around the globe has been one of the most gratifying parts of the work. Coupled with that, collaborating with our partners and seeing the completion of dozens of homes, schools, community centers, medical clinics, water systems, etc. Finally, knowing what teens and middle school students are capable of and seeing these programs challenge them in important ways has been a highlight.
What made the program decide to focus on middle school and high school volunteers?
VISIONS was designed with teenagers in mind. The seed was sown in 1987 with a simple question: “What if there was a kind of Peace Corps for teenagers?” VISIONS’ founders had years of experience under their belts working directly with teenagers in a summer program based on a 300-acre farm. They knew that teens could build and renovate sophisticated structures, make repairs, harvest crops and more. Students loved the camaraderie and relished the physical labor (which they were good at, too).
Middle school students transition into their teens today against a very different backdrop from middle-schoolers of 10 or 20 years ago. The notion of middle school travel abroad was relatively uncommon a decade ago. For us, these younger programs developed out of the success of our high school programs, and also the repeated requests from our families to offer something for their younger children. Our “Passage Programs” for middle schoolers ultimately help pave the way to the high school years just around the corner.
One goal of the VISIONS program is to be a learning organization. What are the three most important lessons you believe a student can take away from their participation in this program?
- The fulfillment of service and discovering a palpable way to do good work in the world. Many of our participants want to help, they want to do good and be of use. They discover during our programs real ways that they can give, ways they can be of help, and ways that they may do so in the future.
- Cross-cultural friendships. Many of our students come to the programs with the strong desire to make a difference and to help people and communities in need. What they discover is how much the people of these communities have to offer, how happy many of them are, what their values are, and what the ingredients of a friendship really come down to.
- Communication skills. We place a premium on communication, and it is what binds our programs together. We meet as a group of staff and students 3 -4 times a week in order to get to know each other, reflect on the volunteer experience, and discuss any issues that might arise while working and living together as a close community. Participants learn to express themselves, sometimes in new ways, and with the intention of respectfulness and understanding of others and others’ ways of life.
Are the administration and staff volunteers?
All of our staff are paid professionals. We have six full-time year-round staff and up to sixty summer staff in the field. Our summer staffers are minimum age 23, and most are mid 20s through early 30s. Many are teachers, returned Peace Corps volunteers, Masters and PhD students, outdoor educators. We have the luxury of selecting summer staff from hundreds of applicants, resulting in leadership teams of great quality and experience working with youth.
Our high school and middle school participants pay a tuition for the summer program, covering all of the program expenses, volunteer projects, full staff, excursions and recreation, etc. And we do offer financial aid.
Why did the program move its base from Pennsylvania to Montana?
In 2010, VISIONS home office moved from its 22-year-old base in Pennsylvania to Bozeman. Montana is home to VISIONS earliest program sites and community partners and too many old friends. We used to have programs on four Indian reservations, and we still have programs on the Blackfeet and Northern Cheyenne reservations. Our ties to Montana go way back. Also, I am a Montana native, and decided to move VISIONS to our wonderful new homebase!