Monday, July 10, 2017

MOUNTAINS AND MARATHONS - FINDING A PATH WITH NICO COMPOSTO

Montana Campus Compact AmeriCorps VISTA member Nico Composto reflects on the stages of life that brought him to serve as a VISTA in Montana and his revelations moving forward.

A talented runner; a valued service member; and a good friend
"It is wild to think of the moments that influence our lives. The small, seemingly insignificant happenings that change everything. For me, an odd web of unexpected coincidences led me to make several irrational choices landing me in the middle of Montana, a place I never thought I would be and certainly didn’t think I would spend the rest of my life. But now I am here and have never felt so at home.

A year and a half ago I watched the TV show, Twin Peaks, for the first time. It is a cult classic from the early 90s that most people haven’t heard of, and those who have often hate its quirky and surreal nature. For me, though, the show struck a chord. The series took place in a small town in the inland northwest, modeled after the creator, David Lynch’s home town: Missoula, Montana. Researching that show was the first time I had ever heard of Missoula, but since that moment, this town has been all I can think about. Prior to living here, I had only ever lived in Chicago or New York, yet I craved the mountain environment that exists throughout Western Montana, so I began looking into moving here. Since graduating college in the spring of 2014, I had been working small jobs, just trying to get by and figure things out, but I never quite felt satisfied. I enjoyed my job in retail sales, but it just didn’t feel like I was doing anything particularly meaningful. I don’t really value material possessions, so it was hard for me to sell things to people when I knew that deep down they didn’t need those items. That was when I looked at the Americorps website for the first time. I wanted to stop selling shoes and start working directly with a community, improving the lives of the people around me.

Now here is where things got weird, because I am not exaggerating when I say I applied for about 200 jobs after graduating college. At least 15 of those jobs I was impeccably qualified for. 5 of those jobs I had an in with the corporate office that was doing the hiring and I was offered 0 positions. No matter what I did, no matter who I talked to it didn’t matter, I could not get a job. What a miracle. If I had gotten one of those positions I would be living in some mid-sized city in the Midwest, pushing product for some shoe company. There wouldn’t be a mountain within 1000 miles of where I would have lived. I wouldn’t be helping anyone except ensuring that the stockholders had enough money to take 3 vacations that year. But I didn’t get that job. Instead, I ended up getting a service position with VISTA at the Historical Museum at Fort Missoula, developing youth education programs and working to increase the role of our museum in the community. This year has been eye opening. For the first time in my life I have come to understand the value of community and I intend to spend the rest of my life working to improve the lives of people around me (or at the very least make them laugh a little more).


I have done a ton in my year as a VISTA, working in many different roles to build the capacity at my museum. There is one job, though, that I have enjoyed more than any other at the museum: I love developing education programs and teaching. That is just who I am.  Perhaps the highlight of my year has been my task of developing a summer program for Missoula-area middle-schoolers called the “Jr. Docent Program.” The idea behind the program is to train students to become tour guides at our museum. It has been an incredibly rewarding experience seeing these students grow in knowledge and confidence. After just a few weeks, they have learned a tremendous amount about history as well as developed necessary interpersonal skills that they can use for the rest of their lives. I created the curriculum for the program with the goal of making it possible to run the program on a yearly basis after my service is complete, thus expanding educational opportunities for young Missoulians for years to come.

When I was younger I always wanted to become a teacher, but growing up in Chicago I saw so many teachers upset with the education system. Being a teacher began to seem like an undesirable position. This year as a VISTA, though, has reminded me how valuable teaching is and how much I love it. For the first time in a long time I don’t feel lost. It feels like I have a plan and direction, like I am moving towards something valuable. All I want is to be a teacher in Western Montana, it doesn’t even quite matter where, as long as there are mountains. I am hoping to teach at a high school, because I personally struggled with self-identity and self-confidence during my own high school years. For any student that is experiencing similar struggles, I hope to help them through the four years that I know can be challenging and inspire them to pursue their passions and do great things for our world.

What an incredibly unlikely set of events to lead me to this point. I guess that is the way things happen for everyone. For me, I saw a TV show in the Midwest and now I am going to be a teacher in Montana… All glued together by the inspirational experiences I received as a VISTA. I am going to be finishing my year in a few weeks and I can’t give enough thanks to the people who supported me this year: The staff at MTCC, my co-workers at the Historical Museum and, of course, my fellow VISTAs who never stopped and never will stop having deeply meaningful roles in the communities with which they work. What an awesome group of people to have spent my year with."

Tuesday, April 18, 2017

AMERICORPS VISTA SCARLETT DAY-ALEMAN REFLECTS ON CONISISTENCY

Scarlett Day-Aleman is a Campus Compact AmeriCorps VISTA Member serving in Lame Deer, Montana. She shared the following piece with us recently. Thanks, Scarlett!
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Ten of the past twelve months of my life have been spent in service to the Northern Cheyenne Tribe in Lame Deer, Montana. I have served with two different, equally amazing, organizations. I have learned so much and made some amazing connections with the community around me. I would not trade a minute of what I am doing, or what I did in the summer, for anything in the world. Just to make it clear: I do not hold any of my organizations responsible for the pit-falls that just naturally happen, nor am I discounting the good works they are doing. However, some things need to be addressed to make sure the good intentions people have are carried out in the most positive way.

The theory of “good-deed whiplash” came to me as I was evaluating the difference I was making as a VISTA and the difference I made when I was in Lame Deer during the summer. For some reason, being a VISTA makes a person extremely pensive about their purpose and contributions. This theory has been sloshing around my mind for about four and a half months and I haven’t been able to pin down an extremely formal definition, but I know the gist of what I think it means. “Good-Deed Whiplash” is the negative affects of temporary people on the lives of a community that may need semi-permanent to permanent people.

For example, the summer organization that I served with, Youth Works, arrives in Lame Deer for roughly two and a half months (80 days) and then, without much warning, picks up and leaves. The relationships formed are real and the seeds planted are great, but the feelings that kids have after are not always positive. I have talked with kids who feel almost abandoned after the summer because people that they grew to love and trust are suddenly gone. Kids are not the only people who feel the effect of “Good-Deed Whiplash”. Many community members are left to pick-up the pieces of the “good-deeds” after the people orchestrating the programs leave town.

“Good-Deed Whiplash” is most prevalent in low-income communities. Low-income communities are more likely to be grounds of broken homes where children often feel abandoned. Also, low-income communities are fertile fields for missionaries and social programs to take root. Where mission teams and social programs exist, so do temporary people eager to help.

The most prevalent example of “Good-Deed Whiplash” in my life were the conversations I had with the kids when I first moved back to Lame Deer after my summer service was over. After the initial excitement of me being back wore off one of my sixth-graders told me, “I’m so glad you came back. So many people say they’re coming back, but they never do.” Those two simple sentences really struck me. The fact that “so many” people had lied to her struck me even more. I reassured her that the friends she made over the summer still loved her and that even without them she could continue to do great things. That night I vowed to be up front with the kids and not try to pacify them by telling them shallow things. It has really made a difference in how I serve and how I talk with the kids and community I am working with.

While trying to figure out possible personal solutions for “Good-Deed Whiplash”, I have run into a few road blocks. Not everyone is afforded the opportunity to stay in the community they serve, so the solution of just telling people to stay somewhere is not a feasible one. The only feasible solution would be a two part project. The first part would be preparing the kids and the community for your departure. This could be done by making a calendar for the kids you work with so that they can see your departure date. Inform them that you have “x” amount of Friday’s left or “x” amount of days left. This would help ease them in to the transition of you leaving. Their trust would not be broken because it would not be a surprise to them. The second part would be to keep in contact with the people you work with even after you leave. Life is busy and it seems like certain things always get in the way of staying in touch, but with a little perseverance it will all fall into place. Many times, relationships formed are often forgotten when moving due to life just getting in the way. However, it is also important to realize that for some of these kids or community members their only positive influence is brought by the people coming to serve. Staying in contact does not have to be anything elaborate. All it has to be is a letter saying “Thinking of you”, a post card from your home state or where ever you end up after service. Those small gestures will go extremely far in creating sustainable changes in people that you inspire during your time in the community.

On an organizational level, “Good Deed Whiplash” could be combated with proper training. Some of the things that affect low-income communities do not affect other communities. People are not always aware of these distinctions. Optional training on abandonment issues, dealing with at-risk youth, and how poverty affects the psyche, would really alleviate issues that arise due to ignorance. Also having open discussions between former VISTAs or other service members in the community would help new VISTAs get a pulse for their community. Things like legacy binders are a great start, but should also include more things based on community relations.

While “Good Deed Whiplash” is a very real problem it is not a reason to stop serving. The things that YouthWorks does for the local community and students it brings have lasting effects on them both. The things that VISTA has done, and hopefully will continue to do, has changed the face of America for the better. Service is never a bad thing, but it can have negative effects if a proper awareness and connectivity to the intricacy of that community is not fostered. Addressing problems both on a personal level and an organizational level will help to strengthen the organization and community connection. With a few minor tweaks service organizations can continue to serve, but with a greater impact.

Monday, April 3, 2017

REMEMBERING GEORGE WITH CHARLIE BRIGGS

When George Dennison passed away earlier this year, it prompted us to reach out to many of the folks with whom Dennison had worked to establish, grow and support Campus Compact and National Service in Montana. Recently we heard from Charlie Briggs. Charlie is a University of Montana alum, and is the public policy and development officer with Easter Seals Goodwill of the Northern Rockies. When I got my start with Campus Compact, Charlie was director of the Governor's Office of Community Service. He shared some thoughts about George here. Thank you, Charlie.
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In Montana, the Commission is housed in the Governor’s Office of Community Service (and established in statute by the 1993 Legislature), and I served as the second Executive Director from September 1997 – February 2001.  It’s interesting that George was so personable, at least in our dealings it was usually on a first-name basis (which was certainly not the case in meeting with him at the university environment, such as Main Hall).  We had a warm, yet professional working relationship.  He was a decidedly strong leader of the Commission.  George was passionate about national service, and quickly embraced the creation of the Corporation for National Service in 1992-93 (early in the Clinton years, though
initial grants I recall came out at the end of the George H.W. Bush term).  He was appointed Chair by Gov. Racicot, who also embraced national service and created the Office under the Governor, and served as Chair through the Martz Administration.

George was a very direct, clear communicator, and a very engaged Chair of the Montana Commission, developed effective working relationships with a diverse commission membership, making sure everyone was engaged.  He was also most supportive of the work our staff did to prepare and the protocols to award AmeriCorps grants, which included creation of the Montana Campus Corps, under Campus Compact, and other grants such as the Learn and Serve grants awarded in cooperation with the Office of Public Instruction.  He was also committed to maintaining a positive working relationship with the Corporation’s State Office, under the leadership of Joe Lovelady, and then John Allen.

Charlie Briggs
I left the Montana Commission in 2001 to become ED for the Texas Commission on Volunteerism and Community Service, the state commission originally created under Gov. Ann Richards, but enthusiastically embraced by Gov. George W. Bush.  I only mention this because the Texas Campus Compact when I started was really a fledgling university organization there.  As University President, George had really invested in making Campus Compact a priority in the Montana University System.  A couple years into my tenure, I helped convene a meeting of campuses in partnership with their Compact, and asked George to be the keynote speaker.  He readily agreed, made time in his schedule and flew to Austin at his own expense to provide the keynote, but also spent time conferring with campus executives about the importance of supporting national service among university students through the Compact.  That underscored how instilled in George was the importance of campus-based service learning and strengthening civic engagement.  I think that is an important part of his legacy that will hopefully stand the test of time.

Charlie Briggs
March 2017

Friday, March 24, 2017

NASA BLASTS OFF FROM BIGFORK WITH CARTER OLLERVIDEZ

Hello, my name is Carter Ollervidez. I am a MTCC AmeriCorps Leader serving at ACES afterschool program in Big Fork, MT. We got the great opportunity to be part of a NASA STEM challenge. I went to Helena to attend a two day, face-to-face training with NASA in order to fully grasp the STEM challenge my students will be taking on.

During our training, the first challenge was landing on the surface of Mars! I worked with a partner using the Engineering Design Process (EDP). Together we embarked on a mission of building a drag device to slow down a capsule to the surface of mars. We were able to finish a great prototype at the training and then I was on my way home to start the program in Big Fork.

We started off the program at ACES with some team building. Then we broke up into two teams. Our first mission was to come up with a team name, mission patch and a vision statement.

Team One: The Cat-stronauts, proclaiming; “Alone we can do so little, together we can do so much!”

Team Two: The Orion Landers and their vision statement is; “Let's take a trek.”

On day two we got together and played a rousing game of hot seat with our vocabulary words for the course. Then we discussed in more detail the criteria and constraints of the challenge.

Our Mission: Build a drag device to slow down a capsule for landing on the surface of Mars.

Constraints:
1. Only the materials provided can be used for the drag device.
2. The drag device must connect to a team-built cargo bay that is assembled using the template provided in the student journal section.
3. The overall mass cannot exceed 50 grams.
4. The drag device must have angled or round edges; one big circle is not allowed.
5. The cargo bay should be protected by the device when it is dropped from a height of one, two and three meters.

Then to finish off the day the students wrote a letter to our Program Director at ACES, explaining their new job as a NASA Scientist.

The team working hard on the design of their parachute.
We then got right into research. They dove into questions about drag devices, low-density supersonic decelerators, parachutes, and much more. We also made sure to research who will benefit from this work we are doing and this problem we are hopefully solving. We also came up with a few questions for our NASA Scientists to answer. One of our questions was: How much does a 100 ft. parachute weigh?

This period was hard work for the teams, we concentrated super hard and powered through. Each team worked separately on a design that fulfills the constraints of our project.
The teams powered through, then came together at the end to see and explain to each other their design. They came up with two prototypes to begin building.

We started off the New Year with a bang by meeting NASA scientist, David Berger! He grew up on a small farm in Indiana wanting to work on the next NASA rocket plane/spacecraft. He was fortunate enough to be able to start working at NASA as a co-operative education student in college.  At NASA he has worked in propulsion, aerodynamics, systems engineering, flight test engineering, chief engineering and education technical management positions.

After our call with David Berger we started building our devices! The kids took to it and worked well together, creating and adapting the model as they used different materials.

Next up, we went out and tested our two designs! Then they spent time reworking designs to see what we could improve upon based on the first test’s performance. The kids were super excited to try their prototypes! Following a few design changes, it was time to test them once again.

The kids learned the importance of having a big light surface area chute with a hole to help stabilize the craft on the descent. Their last chute proved to work the best as they continued to consider weight and surface area ratios.
Testing the parachute and taking notes.

We also had the pleasure to talk with Kurtis Long.  Kurtis Long is a research engineer at NASA Ames Research Center. He runs wind tunnel tests to investigate the lift, drag, and flow patterns of different objects. We had a really great experience listening and asking questions. Mr. Long congratulated the students on their designs, and was happy to see they had come up with a few ideas that NASA also had.  ie; A parachute designed with a hole in the center, and a cupped capsule to catch wind.

Our final discussion with NASA was career oriented. We met with the Johnson Space Center, It is the center dedicated to astronauts. Our Subject Matter Expert was Sarah McNamara. Mrs. McNamara works on the guidance, safety release and evacuation for the Orion Lander.  She answered a ton of questions the kids had for her about different careers NASA has to offer - from doctors to divers. She also spoke on becoming a NASA Scientist and how to do it! She said goodbye in a really neat way - by showing us a live view from space!

Finally, the last week was upon us. We made the finishing touches on our video and even shared a little time at the local Dairy Queen and having a celebratory ice cream cone.

Thanks for following our journey. We all learned a lot and can’t believe we got to talk to real astronauts!

Thursday, March 16, 2017

REMEMBERING GEORGE: SHOOTING POOL WITH SHANNON STOBER

We're getting close to wrapping up our series of posts remembering George Dennison, former University of Montana president and founding board member of the Montana Campus Compact. Shannon Stober is one of those people here in Montana who helps remind us why service is important, both to our communities and ourselves. I'm positive she's trained more AmeriCorps and VISTA members over her career than anyone else in Montana. Way back when, she worked for Campus Compact, running our Campus Corps AmeriCorps program. She went on to work with Montana Conservation Corps for several years, and now works for herself as a trainer and consultant with Verve Exchange. Thanks for taking a minute to remember George!
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I had the privilege of working with George Dennison for several years when I was employed with Governors Office of Community Service and he served as the Chair of our commission. At the time, I was very young and fresh off a two terms of National Service as an AmeriCorps VISTA. I was idealistic, energetic, and more than likely a complete handful. I can only imagine the patience and fortitude it took to keep me in line and channel my good intentions into appropriate action.

George didn't need to take an active role in coaching me into my new role, which has incidentally blossomed into what I would consider to be my purpose, but he did. He was inclusive of my youthful voice, taught me about navigating large organizational systems, and wasn't afraid to give me boundaries when needed. These are lessons that still serve me today, and values I aspire to model for the young people I engage with. My favorite memory of George occurred while we were at a retreat he was hosting. I was beating all of the old-timers at pool and he said "Shannon, proficiency at pool is indicative of a misspent youth." I responded, "Well George, I'm at your place, drinking your beer, so it must not have been all that bad!" He laughed so hard! He was a tremendous man, I admired him very much. Rest in peace good sir.

Shannon Stober
March 2017

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

REMEMBERING GEORGE: HABITS OF THE HEART WITH JOHN ALLEN

George Dennison, (originally printed in the Spring 2010 Montanan)
In January, we lost a dedicated, visionary leader when George Dennison passed away. Since then, we've put the call out to friends and colleagues of George to send us pieces about working with him and what it meant. This piece comes from John Allen, who worked as Montana state director for the Corporation for National and Community Service office. John's retired now, but he served on the Governor's Commission on Community Service with George. John helped establish MTCC's VISTA program and wrote this piece on the occasion of George's retirement. It ran originally in the Spring 2010 issue of the Montanan, UM's alumni magazine.
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"I know President Dennison as a builder who has made Montana a better place. One can easily see all the growth at UM—the new stadium, the powerhouse football team, increased student enrollment, the rise of the University’s academic reputation, and other milestones. From my personal experience and knowledge, Dennison’s legacy also is about building foundations that we can build on to create more and better volunteer programs, a more civically engaged population, and, consequently, a stronger democracy.

During my thirty-five years working in community service, civic engagement, and volunteerism, and ten years as the Montana director for the Corporation for National and Community Service (known as the domestic Peace Corps), I worked with Dennison to encourage civic engagement and volunteerism. He is a builder—a visionary with a can-do attitude. I can’t count the number of times in meetings where he would say, “Let’s get it done.” He is able to connect seemingly unrelated issues while fostering relationships between far afield entities, like college volunteers working with senior volunteers to collect for food banks or young volunteers teaching senior volunteers about computers. Dennison realizes a successful democracy depends on an educated and civically engaged population. 


John Allen
Often he would lead dialogues among leaders in community service about the importance of volunteerism. Building civic engagement to him was not only an academic interest; it was about something bigger and getting it done. Dennison provided the vision and leadership at the University, in Montana, and nationally to increase civic engagement. He served on the national Campus Compact board and was instrumental in building, in Montana, one of the most successful branches in the nation. Campus Compact promotes civic engagement at the university level. Year after year, UM ranks among the top universities nationally for civically engaged students, outranking many prestigious schools. For fifteen years Dennison was the chair, visionary, and leaderof the Montana Commission on Community Service, which promoted civic engagement. With his leadership, the commission developed and implemented more programs and created an environment that encouraged collaborations not often seen in larger states. Civic engagement experts considered the Montana Campus Compact and Montana Commission on Community Service as models for the nation, a direct result of Dennison’s longtime commitment and leadership. He gave tireless effort and always made himself available." 

John Allen

Tuesday, February 14, 2017

Goodbye to Two-Term MTCC VISTA - Kate Johnson

Last month, we said goodbye to a great VISTA and wonderful colleague in Kate Johnson. Kate served as a VISTA with Bitterroot College UM in Hamilton for 2 full years, helping build capacity for the college’s marketing and outreach to the low-income and first generation college Bitterrooters. Kate’s dedication to college access and passion for community education will continue to benefit her immediate community as she transitions into a new student outreach role at The University of Montana. Below she reflects on her 2 years of service.

What aspect of serving with Bitterroot College will you remember most?

Seeing how hard some of the people involved with Bitterroot College work in order to keep that college going. The College is relatively new in the community, and is always overcoming an obstacle. It keeps going on because so many staff, faculty, and community members are determined to provide access to education to people in the Bitterroot Valley. Pro tip: Support your local educational institution(s) through educating yourself on higher education systems, by taking classes, by getting to know the people who dedicate themselves to making education available, affordable, and relevant to their neighbors.

Through your experience, in what ways did you expand the capacity of Bitterroot College outreach?

In my first term of service I expanded the college's outreach capacity by building tools and systems for our marketing, doing outreach presentations for community organizations, tabling at the Hamilton Farmers Market (always getting a bagel breakfast sandwich from Bitterroot Bagels and More or a burrito from Maria's Burritos or both), and creating marketing procedures and strategies for the college to use in the 1-3 year span. 

In my second term of service I did more tabling (and ate many more bagel breakfast sandwiches and burritos), more outreach presentations, and helped develop a strategic outreach plan with a team of Bitterroot College staff and AmeriCorps members. I also wrote grants for the college to expand its academic offerings to the community. 

How has two years of service in VISTA changed you as a person?

For the past two years I've done my service on a largely self-directed basis with the expectation of still working within a team, so I've learned a lot about how I operate as a person, teammate, and office pal and have made some adjustments to my office personality. On the whole, I hope I've started to balance candor with capability. 

What can we expect from Future Kate?

I just started a job at UM's Global Engagement Office and am grant writing on the side for a couple nonprofit organizations in the Bitterroot Valley. So expect to see me drinking lots of coffee on campus, loping through Missoula on some good runs (ultimate short term goal is to run all of the switchbacks of the "M" without going into cardiac arrest), moseying through the Missoula Farmers Market, and volunteering.

Any words of wisdom for potential first year VISTAs?

Take ownership of your service. You're allowed - and supposed to - speak up for yourself at your service site. You're expected to get things done for your community, so make sure that you have what you need in order to do that successfully. And you're obligated to stand up for what is fair for yourself, the people you serve, and the people whose voices need to be heard.