Monday, October 16, 2017


Estevon Torres is a CAT!
For the past four years an emerging nonprofit called Sparrows Nest of Northwest Montana has been making headway on addressing teen homelessness in the Flathead. Sparrows Nest does some incredibly necessary work there helping homeless teens with safe housing so they can continue and complete their studies, work, and live. We've helped provide four AmeriCorps VISTAs over the past four years, and they are on the home stretch with the support we can provide. Over the years, we've seen them go from a good idea hatched by caring community members to an organization with a board, staff and volunteer pool. I remember the first call I got from Marcie Bumke, who was a volunteer and board member for Sparrows Nest. She'd been in touch with Wendy Jeschke from Flathead Valley Community College, and Wendy had told her what they were doing was well-suited for a VISTA.

Marcie was so excited to get things going, and had missed our deadline for project submissions. I knew that they had immediate needs, a work station in a partner church's rectory, and they were ready to go. So we bent the rules a bit, and got to work setting them up, got the project approved, got a work plan set up and the next thing I knew Cat, Sparrows Nest first VISTA, was in Montana, rolling up her sleeves and getting things done. It seemed to happen in just a couple of weeks.

MTCC VISTAs Cat Lehnis, Claire Anderson, Molly Neu and now, Jamie Pollard have served with Sparrows Nest, and have helped build new capacity and deeper partnerships in the Flathead, so homeless teens have better access to services, and support.

We just read this great article in Kalispell's Daily Interlake about Estevon Torres. Estevon recently started college at Montana State University this fall. Estevon was the first resident of Sparrows Nest Whitefish shelter! Great work Estevon. Keep it up.

Friday, September 29, 2017


MPSEOC's College Fair in Missoula!
Montana Post-Secondary Educational Opportunities Council (MPSEOC or "mop-sock") is a non-profit organization representing over 25 higher education institutions in Montana. Every year MPSEOC hosts 24 College Fairs across Montana, reaching over 10,000 students.

Lauren Tobias, our MTCC VISTA Member serving a second service term with MPSEOC sees the fairs as “a great, and often times the only direct college exposure students in small towns across our fourth largest state in the nation get”.
High School Students test out the MPSEOC Photo Booth.
Serving as an MTCC VISTA with Poplar High School and Fort Peck Community College last year I had the opportunity to take our high school students to MPSEOC fairs in both Glasgow and Poplar, Montana. It still remains the only experience I have had with students asking for more time to take measurable steps, and asked detailed questions about their post-high school futures.

Amy Leary, MPSEOC Director, confirmed our Poplar students’ experiences are the main goal for the fairs: “Our hope is that we can help students see all their amazing post-secondary options as we open up windows to next steps for their success”.

Walking around the University of Montana's UC  Ballroom, where the fair was hosted by Emily Ferguson-Steger of UM, it was clear that excitement was in the air. Groups of students, decked out in homecoming week costumes, consistently approached tables and even formed lines to speak to representatives.

I was able to check in with a few of them, all first time fair goers, about their expectations and experience:

“This is my first fair. I am really impressed with all of the options, especially the amount of outside of schooling opportunities, like the Army.”
         – Keana, Senior at Frenchtown HighSchool

“Definitely 10 out of 10 for the scholarship table!”
 – Emma, Senior at Loyola High School

“We are exchange students so the college fair is a great opportunity to learn about post high school options in a United States context. Sports are way more important here!”
         – Pedro, Senior at Frenchtown High School

VISTA Lauren Tobias, UM 's Emily Ferguson-Steger, and MPSEOC's Amy Leary. 
Whitman College representative, Madison Hollenbeck also gave huge praise to Amy, Lauren, and the entire  MPSEOC team for “putting on some of the best fairs in the field” after stating that she has toured multiple fair circuits nationally. She concluded our short conversation saying, “MPSEOC fairs are fantastic! They are run so smoothly and I always have a clear and concise understanding of what to look forward to and expect”.

Many thanks to Amy, Lauren, and the MPSEOC team for working and serving tirelessly to make college and other post-high school options more accessible to Montana students!

Wednesday, September 20, 2017


Helena area VISTAs spearheaded a food drive!
With 26 VISTA Members statewide, Montana Campus Compact has the capacity to leave a lasting community impact on National Days of Service, both 9/11 and MLK Jr. Day. This year Members found themselves creating service projects, collaborating with other VISTAs, and lending hands to existing community events and service sites.

In the Northwest region Members Maryelizabeth Koepele and Maya Koepke donated over 16 hours to a pet shelter overwhelmed with animals from families’ needing to evacuate Eureka due to wildfires. Troy Member Haley Spurlin organized a letter writing campaign for those same firefighters at her service site – Troy Elementary School. Students thanked these public servants writing things like, “Firefighters are awesomeness...dope...lifesavers and we thank them for their service!
VISTA Maryelizabeth Koepele with two Eureka fire-displaced puppies
Missoula Members worked to raise awareness among Missoula County Residents about a free public safety program, SMART 911. This program lets community members create a personal safety profile including information about pets in the home, children, medical needs, etc. The profile of registered residents pop ups every time they call 911. The SMART 911 profile also maps account holders on an octagonal grid so they can be notified in case of natural disasters or missing children in their area. The Missoula team reached out to over 200 Missoula County residents and businesses.

Helena Members, Shelby Lang, Rebecca Washko, and Zach Bernknopf organized a food drive for the HelenaFood Bank collecting over 1,000 pounds of food! In other food related service, Bozeman Members Connor Harbison and Aubree Pierce worked with the Towne Harvest Farm collecting crops before the first snow killed them. In the afternoon, they went to the Gallatin Valley Food Bank to pack food for those in need.

Troy Elementary students write to firefighters
Member Cora Crecelius also supported community food security, helping the National Centerfor Appropriate Technology, Main Street Uptown Butte, Butte Emergency FoodBank, Montana Tech, and multiple AmeriCorps Programs. She sorted, washed, and packed produce that had been donated to the food bank, working primarily on four crates of tomatoes, three of apples, shucking several bags of corn, and moving boxes.

Lastly, in North Eastern Montana, Poplar Members Kaitlyn McCoy, Kaitlin Willbanks, and Molly Bean planned and implemented a series of six Suicide Prevention workshops in collaboration with HPDP's suicide prevention coordinator and the state suicide prevention office. SafeTALK (Suicide Alertness For Everyone, and Tell, Ask, Listen, KeepSafe) trainings took place on September 13th and 14th with Courage Crawford (Spotted Bull Treatment Center) as the main facilitator. The 39 participants learned how to recognize signs of potential suicide and how to respond when suicidal ideations are present by asking directly about suicide, listening to the person experiencing thoughts of suicide, and keeping that person safe until they can get connected to someone trained in more in-depth intervention.

Overall, MTCC Members identified opportunities to step up into new service roles in their communities. These national days of service provide that great opportunity for Members to plan and implement direct service projects, and build relationships beyond their immediate host site. Thanks to everyone for their extra diligent and direct service!  

Monday, September 18, 2017


VISTA Member Cora Crecelius spent the afternoon of August 11th and 12th at Butte's An Ri Ra Festival celebrating the town's Irish Heritage.

Every year tents are set up selling food, drinks, and Irish-themed souvenirs and clothing. Events are held throughout both days featuring Irish musicians and dancers. Because Cora's Supervisor, Kid's Coalition Director Kathy Tutty, is part of the Gaelic Cultural Society she got to help out by putting together a children's tent stocked with: arts and crafts, a sandbox, and pool noodles for kids to practice "Caber Toss" (a tradition of throwing tree trunks as far as possible).

For this event Cora gathered volunteers to help collect supplies and set up an attention grabbing and engaging tent. One of their finishing touches included a wooden picture, painted by a Montana Tech college student, of a fairy and leprechaun with head holes people could put their faces through for pictures.

Being flexible is one of the core competencies of a VISTA service year - even when Kids Coalition ended up short on day-of help, Cora was able to enlist the support of other festival goers to lead activities. Turning this set back into an opportunity, Cora invited a ten-year-old girl to take over face painting when some volunteers ended up as no-shows. The new volunteer had a great time taking on this leadership role and even did a really impressive job with a four leaf clover on Cora's face.
Overall, in spite of setbacks like the smoke from Montana's forest fires, and volunteer challenges, this year's An Ri Ra was a positive experience. It was a great couple of days for Cora to introduce herself and her service site, Kids Coalition, to more Butte families and locals.

Thursday, September 7, 2017

10 OUT OF 10

Two weeks ago we posted about the American Indian College Fund (AICF) Bridge Grant ($100,000 distributed over two years) that VISTA Members Kaitlyn McCoy and Carly Hosford-Israel applied for and recently received during their terms of service with Fort Peck Community College (FPCC). The grant aims to increase American Indian and Alaska Native high school students' college readiness. FPCC delivers the AICF Bridge Curriculum Guide throughout the year in: academic classes during a summer academy, culturally focused camping trips, college admissions knowledge, first-year experience classes, a book club, and college campus visits.  

This week we got a little more personal and asked a Bridge Participant about her experience with the program so far – Meet MaJe Follet:

I signed up for the Fort Peck Community College Bridge Academy to meet others. The towns on Fort Peck are pretty spread out over the two million plus acres of Reservation land so it is difficult to meet peers outside of each individual community. By joining Bridge I have the opportunity to: meet other students outside of Frazer, earn early college credit, and tour college campuses in Minnesota and possibly New York.

The Bridge Program is encouraging me to start getting serious about college. I have taken the initiative to start looking into academic programs that interest me as well as work study options that will make it financially feasible to see myself through senior year.

Life on Fort Peck can be a bit unpredictable. People in our communities face a number of hardships that make flexibility a challenging life skill to build. Before going off to college I hope to practice working more calmly through the unknown and unpredictable elements in life. I know there will be plenty of continued practice with that in college and I want to be prepared.

It is difficult to narrow in on my favorite part of Bridge so far. I really enjoyed our summer academy (even though the teachers might have given us more work than we received in the academic year). Also, I have already had the opportunity to make some solid new friends. We finished off the summer with a historic and culturally focused camping trip on Fort Peck Dam, with swimming, lectures on Pan-Indianism, and wahampi (soup in Dakota).

Everything with FPCC Bridge is fun, which is surprising because I never thought I would say that about an academic program. I’d 10 out of 10 recommend! 

Monday, August 21, 2017


Earlier this year MTCC VISTAs Kaitlyn McCoy’s and my own service site, Fort Peck Community College (FPCC) was awarded the American Indian College Fund (AICF) Native Pathways to College Bridge Program Grant - $100,000 distributed over the course of two years. The grant aims to increase American Indian and Alaska Native high school students’ college readiness. FPCC delivers the ACIF Bridge Curriculum Guide throughout the year in: academic classes during a summer academy, culturally focused camping trips, college admissions knowledge, first-year college experience classes, a book club, and college campus visits.

The most essential element of all program planning is the link between grant funded curriculum and community culture – the Bridge. Since the beginning of the grant writing process Kaitlyn and I made efforts to continually consult with various community members to guarantee the Bridge program would be relevant to students affiliated with both the Nakoda (Assiniboine) and Dakota (Sioux) Tribes. Marty Reum, FPCC Student Support Services Advocate, helped us immensely during our logo design phase and historian and writer Dr. Joseph McGeshick planned and facilitated our summer camp outs.

Kaitlyn has now been joined with a new July 2017-18 term VISTA, Kaitlin Willbanks, and the two are in the planning state for the Bridge college visits. The two are busy linking cultural relevancy to all components of the trips including travel. The October journey to and from University of Minnesota will reflect the historical Nakoda, Dakota, and Lakota (Sioux) migration. The campus tours themselves will be led by students or facility in the Native American Studies departments and engaged in Native American student groups. All of this culturally contextualized planning will introduce Fort Peck students to communities they can more comfortably transition into if they decide to attend college further from home.

While applying for, planning, and implementing Bridge, the program has been one of the most consuming projects of both Kaitlyn and my own first service year it has not always been a smooth process. Kaitlyn recently spoke to one of the weakness she’s observing during this program implementation phase: 

“One of the greatest needs overlooked by Bridge programming is the at-risk student population. While the summer academy and camp-outs reached a good number of enthusiastic youth from across Fort Peck Reservation, there is still a large percentage being left behind. There are plenty of students barely staying in school, so it is highly unlikely they can take on the extra expectations of Bridge. At the same time we know Bridge programming would be exponentially more beneficial to them.”
Kaitlyn hopes that through more brainstorming both she and Kaitlin will figure out ways to decrease the barriers of entry to this large percentage of at-risk students throughout the year.

The Bridge grant has really been a lesson in the foundational need to connect the context of a people, and even personalities, into the building of programs. Last year I learned, to serve a people one must first get to know them. Kaitlyn, Kaitlin, and I have built formative relationships with Fort Peck high school, college students, and community members that are the basis for Bridge successes. These relationships are invaluable to our service, and it is our continued hope they are similarly rewarding for Fork Peck communities.  

Tuesday, August 15, 2017


MTCC VISTA Alumna, Darby Lacy.

Darby Lacy just completed a year of service with the Bozeman Area Community Foundation. She agreed to share some reflections with our incoming members. Thanks Darby!
"As I began my year of service a little over a year ago, I remember feeling as if I had so many days to fill with activities to strengthen my community. I also had no clue where to start. Upon reflection, a few principles and practices helped me find my footing for a meaningful year of service - which went by quicker than I could have ever imagined.

Even though I stayed in my community to serve, I had relatively little experience with the conventions of nonprofit work or what work nonprofits in my community were carrying out. My first weeks were filled with reading as much as possible about my organization and community. This would be my first piece of advice to new VISTAs:  Learn as much as possible about your community and your organization. Read books! Read the newspaper! Read community blogs! Go to city or tribal council meetings! Meet with community leaders! Information is everywhere. Guiding questions for this search include: What are the challenges is your community facing? What are the main economic drivers? Who is getting stuff done in the community? Who’s voices are and aren’t being heard?

I also made it a priority to meet every one of our board members for coffee during my first month of service, something I would highly recommend. I asked them questions about: why they were compelled to join the board, what they were proud of about our organization, and what they saw as our growth opportunities. I learned a tremendous amount about important moments in my organization’s history and goals for the upcoming year. I also built relationships with folks who provided guidance, feedback, and support during my year of service. This would be an equally great practice for connecting with other VISTAs, service members, and other community leaders. VISTA projects are strengthened by collaboration outside of your site, and this practice lays groundwork for that critical collaboration. Ultimately, it also helps you feel more connected to your project and potentially new home.

Another important lesson I learned was that I didn’t have to start from scratch in my service even though I was creating a new process for my organization. I recommend not completely reinventing the wheel, but also innovating an approach that suites your community.  Guiding questions here are: What’s working in other organizations similar to yours? What is unique about my community’s needs?

Finally, VISTA is all about poverty alleviation. You will be asked by VISTA to keep track of certain statistics about your service impact, and you should consider what statistics are important to your organization as well. Figure out what you want to measure and how you will measure it before you start a new program or process. This will help you share the incredible impact of your work with funders, government agencies, and community members so that your work can be supported and sustained after your time as a VISTA ends.

Perhaps the advice I’ve shared is a tell; I’m a person who believes that planning and research are necessary before diving into any project. To leave a strong VISTA legacy, I believe this information gathering and planning stage is critical work even when it feels like nothing tangible is being completed. Research and planning will allow you to build a stable foundation for VISTA projects that sustainably meet your community’s and organization’s needs. Of course flexibility, creativity, and innovation are just as necessary when plans fall through. Being well researched, in tune with your community, and open minded will prove invaluable when you are called upon to change directions in the middle of things, because inevitably you will be.

Good luck! Wishing you all the best on your VISTA journey!"