When I started my service year, I knew that it would be difficult, especially living on a reservation in one of the most rural areas of the country (I would later discover it is the most rural). Life is already challenging here on the Fort Peck Reservation, and many factors, including the history and trauma of this place, make it a harsh environment. I was fully aware that moving here would mean sacrifice for the greater good (although not the kind that Grindelwald from the Harry Potter series promoted). I was intent on creating change and allowing challenges and hardships to make me stronger, because I knew the alternative was not an option. Going into this journey with that mindset made it possible, but it was never easy, and there were times when I failed, mentally. I pushed myself too hard and exhausted my capabilities. I learned the necessity of saying no, that my white privilege did not mean that I could ignore the problems associated with stress and compassion fatigue that build within the human body. I pushed myself to the close before I realized I had ignored the importance of staying open. You cannot help others when you are driven down yourself, and in a community where this concept is a tangible reality, that should have been more obvious to me.
I am proud of what I was able to accomplish during my time in Poplar, although I will always wish, as I always do, that I could have done more. I feel accomplished knowing I made a lasting connection with the community and created a strong partnership between Montana No Kid Hungry and the tribal health organization Health Promotion Disease Prevention (HPDP). That connection will continue to create systematic change here in the future. I leave a part of my heart in Poplar, and I know one day I will be back, hopefully working for HPDP for just a couple months at a time. Through the Breakfast in the Classroom program I implemented in Poplar High, every high school student now has access to not only breakfast, but food that can be saved as a snack for later in the day. Teachers don’t have to buy snacks for their students any longer. Through the partnership with HPDP, I was able to start a Juice Bar program at Poplar High, allowing students to not only see vegetables they had never seen, heard of, or tried before, but also see those vegetables be turned into juice through a cold-pressed juicer when so many students only thought fruit could be juiced. In years to come, HPDP will manage this program to make it sustainable.
Changing norms takes longer than a year, but during this past year, students actually thought about breakfast and the importance of nutrition. They talked about the programs with their friends, even if they hated the juice recipes with beets. They talked about beets for probably the first times in their lives. They thought about what foods they wanted for breakfast. They heard interesting nutrition facts over the intercom in the mornings. They talked about why breakfast was important to them, and they answered questions about their eating habits. They participated in events and activities and contests that promoted the importance of eating breakfast. They won their own juice machines to make juice at home. They made drawings and paintings and engravings of breakfast foods and captured why breakfast was important to them. They wrote wildly creative poems about being a cereal killer. They thought about making foods that are not only delicious, but healthy too. They learned that healthy can be delicious. By majority vote, they decided that they loved healthy, homemade breakfast cookies made with carrots and devoid of sugar.
I also took time to talk to the students, to get to know them, to laugh with them, to respect them. I had always been drawn to the idea of working as a school counselor in a school environment, and I think it was meant to be that my office was in the counseling center of Poplar High. I also volunteered some of my free time at the Juvenile Detention Center, working with groups of young girls, talking about poetry, about relationships, writing, culture, history, forgiveness, what it’s like to be female in the world, and about life. I talked to girls, both at the JDC and at school, about problems that no child and no human should have to endure. I reminded some young girls that they are always stronger than they think, that love exists, and more than once that rape is always the fault of the rapist, no matter what. I built a strong relationship with three girls in particular, and I will stay in contact with them for years to come. One of the girls is 15, and her biological mother was 16 when she was born, which means I’m the same age as her mother. She was raised by her grandmother, but recently she has taken to referring to me as a mom, since her friends jokingly asked if I was her mother. Sometimes, she reminds me of myself at 15, and I feel that I understand her very well. She seeks connection and comfort through music, books, and other people who understand her zany personality. This upcoming school year she is moving to a new boarding school in Oregon, and she is so excited. A little piece of my heart will soon be traveling to Oregon too.
When I was 15, I was dealing with complex home and family issues, although without the historical and structural complexities that plague my 15 year old student, her family, and her community. When the first Harry Potter book came out I was a ten year old child not raised on the magic of reading, but who very much wanted to read that book. My mother refused to allow me that, calling it devil worship. By the time I was free to make my own choices in my own 18 year old world, I was not interested in reading children’s books. Years later, in my 20s, I read some of the books and watched the films but I did not fully understand the power of the stories until this very year when I finished reading the entire series in chronological order. After a sometimes stressful day at work, I went home to experience Harry’s stress. Harry Potter became synonymous with self-care.
Toward the end of the final book in the Harry Potter series, Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Harry Potter still could not fully understand why Albus Dumbledore had given him as a present the golden snitch Harry caught during his first Quidditch match years ago. On a mission from Dumbledore, Harry was supposed to be hunting the horcruxes that held a part of Voldemort’s soul, in order to finally defeat him. Harry knew that Dumbledore must have given him the snitch because it would help defeat Voldemort somehow, and that it probably had something important inside of it. But how was he to open it? It was soon revealed to Harry that the phrase I open at the close was magically engraved onto the snitch, but he was still at a loss as to how to open the tiny object and what its purpose could be. Only once Harry discovered that he had to willingly die in order to defeat Voldemort did he realize what the phrase meant. Once Harry had accepted his fate, for the good of the world, the snitch opened. It contained one of the revered deathly hallows, the resurrection stone, which allowed Harry’s loved ones who had passed on to stay by his side for a few moments, giving him strength until he met his fate.
This concept has stayed with me so strongly, especially as I finished this last book not long after our close of service ceremony. The phrase can be interpreted in many ways, which is the beauty that author J.K Rowling bestowed upon it. It’s a phrase that reminds me of sacrifice for the greater good, and although I have definitely not accepted death and saved the world like Harry Potter, I felt that I too have fought battles; learned magic and molded it to my benefit; stood up for my values and what I thought was important; learned the importance of asking for help; realized that family is who we choose, that everything is not always how it seems, that weaknesses can be strengths, and that we all never stop learning; made mistakes as well as new friends; created lasting change and never gave up.
Montana No Kid Hungry-PRC AmeriCorps VISTA