JV AmeriCorps member Hopey Fink (Hays, MT ’15-16) serves as Academic Support Specialist at St. Paul’s Grade School. Below, Fink shares her experience providing educational assistance to students in the remote setting of Hays, Montana.
There’s a lot of “far” between here and other places. This unintentionally profound observation of a first grader has been ringing in my ears since September, when she pointed to a plane flying across the big sky over the playground at recess and mused about the distance to its destination. As a JV AmeriCorps member serving as the Academic Support Specialist at Mission Grade School on the Ft. Belknap Indian Reservation in Hays, Montana, I have had the opportunity to reflect on the unique beauty and the particular challenges of living in a remote place – the joys, the struggles, and the stories that fill the spaces of far between here and other places.
Nestled in the grasslands at the base of the Little Rockies an hour and a half from the nearest large town, Hays is a village of about seven hundred people, mostly enrolled members of the Gros Ventre and Assiniboine tribes. It’s a place where horses frequently wander along the main road, where elk and deer meat are normal neighborly gifts, and where the whole town watches high school football games from pickup trucks pulled up to the field. Like many rural communities across America, it’s a place where the bonds of family run strong but also where cycles of poverty and addiction test these bonds. In January, the Ft. Belknap tribal council voted unanimously to declare an official state of emergency regarding the abuse of meth, a drug that directly or indirectly affects the lives of many of the children at Mission Grade School.
In my tutoring placement, I work one-on-one and in small groups with students from kindergarten through sixth grade. Every day, I see the brightness and potential that these children and youth offer to the community. At the same time, I have also seen how the injustices in rural communities like Hays are intergenerational, and the paths to justice must also be intergenerational.
One place I have witnessed the power of generations working together has been at our school’s weekly Honor Night Book Club, which aims to support family involvement in student literacy. Honor Night is an evening of games and fun in the school gym held every Thursday for students who have attended school, done their homework, and maintained good behavior all week. When relatives come to pick up their children, they are invited to choose a book and read aloud for five minutes. If they spend this time, each child can take a book home. Seeing kids discover the enjoyment that even five minutes of reading with their grandmother can bring is a reminder of the importance of involving families in education, especially in a community where many, if not most, households are multi-generational.
I am learning more and more that education extends beyond the pages of our textbook readers. If it is to be an effective tool against the systemic problems that are particular to this reservation community, education needs to encompass the values and wisdom and stories that Native families have passed from generation to generation in this place. A rootedness in this land and a respect for culture and tradition are things that I, as an outsider, cannot teach in the same way that I can teach times table tricks or phonics practice.
My JV AmeriCorps community mates and I have stepped into a nearly fifty-year legacy of Jesuit Volunteer service in Hays. Each day I am humbled by the sense that this place– these prairies and pines and these stories of wounds and hope that are woven into the fabric of this community- has existed long before us. I am grateful for the ways that I have felt welcomed into sharing some of the uniqueness of this place, whether that be on hikes in the canyon or in the circle of the sweat lodge.
The distance between here and other places cannot only be measured in miles. Hays is a lot of “far” from the nearest Wal-Mart, sure. But the struggles of rural poverty and addiction, along with the struggles of many Indigenous people to preserve their ways, are also far from the minds of most people in America. In coming together across ages and in honoring the traditions of family and culture, the “lot of far” between here and other places can seem less daunting. Recognizing the power of place, in all of its vastness and remoteness, might allow generations to work together to break harmful cycles that are specific to this community. I am thankful for the opportunity to learn from this place as a JV AmeriCorps member and to work with people in Hays to effect change- starting with times tables tricks and phonics practice.