We’re still reeling from our CFxChange trip to the beautiful state of Montana. It was an amazing professional development opportunity to dig in and work with communities that are literally 2,236 miles away from home. This was so different from any conference or workshop that we’ve attended. Not knowing what we’d actually be doing until we got there was a little unnerving, especially for an organizer like me.
There was no conference brochure, line-up of keynotes, or hour by hour itinerary. Instead, we had the freedom to think about the kinds of questions we wanted to ask, and what information we wanted to learn. It was like a choose-your-own-adventure book!
When we arrived, we were prepared to ask the hard questions: What does poverty look like in Montana? What’s the housing stock? Are there enough childcare slots, and is it affordable? How about public transportation?
We received answers to all of these questions, and more. Poverty is surely an issue, and people are indeed food insecure – 1 in 5 people in Kalispell are hungry. Housing is incredibly expensive, the median income is somewhere around $50,000 with the average home price being over $250,000! Local government and developers are working hard to find affordable options.
There is quite a large number of homeless youth in the region so they’ve set-up shelters and programming. Youth run away from home for a variety of reasons, but a large percentage in the Flathead Valley are leaving due to their parent’s drug addiction. Organizations like Sparrow’s Nest are working hard to provide supportive housing and resources for the homeless youth.
Finding affordable and quality childcare is a struggle, especially for middle-income families. There have been incidences of sex-trafficking nearby. Any of this sound familiar? The unforgiving climate (It snowed in June!) and its cloud of depression can often cast a shadow over this beautiful, wild and free landscape.
We found ourselves nodding our heads in agreement and saying things like, “yep, those are some of the same issues in our communities.” Aside from the challenges, and there are some pretty heavy ones…we saw first-hand the impact of colonization on Native Americans in nearby Browning, Montana.
We also saw people who were very emotionally tied to their home town. The love and respect that Montanans have for the environment is incredible. There’s the sense that everyone shares a similar responsibility in taking care of their piece of the planet. This is a state with two National Parks, mountains galore, wildlife, lakes and valleys…the landscape is indescribable, and it’s been maintained in large part by community members.
The biggest take away for me were the conversations we had with every day peeple. For instance, Charlie Abell, a volunteer for the Stumptown Historical Society and a *native of Whitefish, MT, tells the story of how year after year he’s refused to sell his land to former Google CEO, Eric Schmidt. He tells the story with a snicker. Or, while volunteering for the Farm Hands booth at the Farmer’s Market we chatted with kids who attended a school program facilitated by the educators. The kids were given a coin to buy fruit, vegetables or a vegetable plant. They proudly came back to the booth to show us what they had chosen.
I can’t forget my cousin Maria Butts who is the Director of Parks and Recreation for the City of Whitefish. Maria helped put us in touch with several key contacts in Montana prior to our trip. After having not seen her for nearly 12 years, it was so interesting to see the full scope of what she does for the city, and the opportunities her department provides for youth. One special program is encouraging youth to volunteer in exchange for ski passes to Big Mountain, because not all families can afford season passes, but all kids should have an opportunity to ski. This mountain literally stares you in the face every day. Something that seemed so out of reach for these kids has now been made possible, and they’re learning about philanthropy at the same time!
We spoke to all of these people, and so many more, as if they had been friends and colleagues for years, just like we do here at home. Colleagues like Anita Lewis from EOP, or Elaine from Tanglewood and Meghan from the Food Bank. We listen to the great work they’re doing during the day, and laugh with them as they tell the latest story about their kids. It’s somewhat comforting to know that communities all across the country face similar challenges. It really solidifies that saying “we’re all in this together.” I loved seeing that the nonprofits and foundations we visited have the same relationships we work hard for right here in the Finger Lakes. Those same relationships are what make living here and working here so great. Part of this xChange was also realizing that we love the work we do. No, really…we really love it. And our nonprofits are a HUGE part of the reason why we do.
*Interesting use of the word native. In this instance, native simply meant born and raised in Whitefish Mt. but it’s a loaded word for most.