The Montana Immersion: A Glimpse Into a Forgotten Corner of American Life

A+group+of+13+La+Salle+seniors+traveled+to+Browning%2C+Montana+to+volunteer+at+De+La+Salle+Blackfeet+School+from+Oct.+12+to+Oct.+19.
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The Montana Immersion: A Glimpse Into a Forgotten Corner of American Life

A group of 13 La Salle seniors traveled to Browning, Montana to volunteer at De La Salle Blackfeet School from Oct. 12 to Oct. 19.

A group of 13 La Salle seniors traveled to Browning, Montana to volunteer at De La Salle Blackfeet School from Oct. 12 to Oct. 19.

Photo courtesy of Isabel Van Vleet

A group of 13 La Salle seniors traveled to Browning, Montana to volunteer at De La Salle Blackfeet School from Oct. 12 to Oct. 19.

Photo courtesy of Isabel Van Vleet

Photo courtesy of Isabel Van Vleet

A group of 13 La Salle seniors traveled to Browning, Montana to volunteer at De La Salle Blackfeet School from Oct. 12 to Oct. 19.

Luke Thompson, Staff Reporter

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On Saturday, Oct. 19, a group of 13 La Salle seniors landed at PDX. They had returned from a week spent at De La Salle Blackfeet School in Browning, Montana, helping with the needs of nearly 80 students and their teachers in a very impoverished area of the Blackfeet Reservation.

De La Salle Blackfeet is an elementary school that teaches approximately 80 kids from fourth through eighth grade. The school hosts immersion groups from all across the country throughout the year, and these groups build relationships with the students and families as well as learn about the culture of the Blackfeet Indians. 

Isabel Van Vleet
Volunteers from Lasallian schools throughout the country serve at De La Salle Blackfeet.

The seniors who attended this immersion this year are Kyra Sanchez, Alison Paguio, Gabi Fontenette, Maria George, Alvina Hsiao, Dottie Daudelin, Madi Jeffries, Isabel Van Vleet, Jonah Jutzi, Hannah Nguyen, Camille Brumbaugh, Meggie Perkins, and Kira Hynson. They were accompanied on the trip by Ms. Sarah Maher, Director of Service and Dean of Women at La Salle.

Photo courtesy of Isabel Van Vleet
Senior volunteers from La Salle gathered in a classroom together.

“I very much appreciated the teachers’ dedication to their students,” Ms. Maher said. “It’s a very high needs school, and every faculty member seemed to do whatever possible to make each child succeed.”

Very few students are admitted each year, and the pool of those who get admitted is almost always exclusively seniors. “I applied last year, and I got put on a waitlist because a bunch of people applied,” Fontenette said. “And usually it’s only seniors who go, so this year I had first preference.” 

Isabel Van Vleet
The group explored the mountains in Browning, Montana.

In October, Montana can be extremely cold compared to autumns in the Pacific Northwest, but the group managed to dodge the bad weather. “When we got there we came just after a snowstorm,” Fontenette said. “So it was supposed to be very cold. But we were pretty lucky and it was only [in the] 40s, so it wasn’t wasn’t that much colder [than here].”

Each of the La Salle seniors was assigned to one of the five grade levels in the school. Fontenette said they usually started out the mornings by reading with the kids, “rotat[ing] between different kids, help[ing] them [with] reading, get[ting] to know them a little better,” she said. “We would assist the teachers in whichever way we could.” 

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  • "We would assist the teachers in whichever way we could," Fontenette said.

    Photo courtesy of Isabel Van Vleet

  • "We would assist the teachers in whichever way we could," Fontenette said.

    Photos courtesy of Isabel Van Vleet

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“During math [and social studies], we’d always go around the kids, and usually worked one on one with kids,” Fontenette said. “And there were a few kids who had learning disabilities, both diagnosed and undiagnosed, and so a lot of times the teachers would have us work one on one with them.”

Though the school has access to some luxuries, the problems in the community are also reflected there. “There were a lot of kids who were sleeping at different houses each night just because they didn’t have a permanent, safe home,” she said. The lives of the kids were certainly very spread out… It was a very impoverished area, so [the school] definitely reflected that.”

Isabel Van Vleet
“There were a lot of kids who were sleeping at different houses each night,” Fontenette said.

The average income per family on the reservation is between $20,000 and $25,000, which is at or below the poverty line. “De La Salle [Blackfeet] is a private school,” Paguio said. “The tuition is $500… some of the families can’t afford that.” 

“I knew that we were going… into a town that was [afflicted by] poverty, and I guess I was ready for that,” she said. “But it’s different when you’re there, when you feel the community, where a lot of people are suffering, where a lot of people need help. I think just talking about it and learning about it and going on these trips is so important because it opens your mind and your heart to to a whole other world of people that you wouldn’t even think about.”

Isabel Van Vleet
Senior Jonah Jutzi on the playground with several students from De La Salle Blackfeet.

Fontenette said she highly recommends this mission. “It was definitely a very eye-opening experience,” she said. “I know [that I and] some of the people that I went on the trip with… are planning to go back, just because the people are amazing and you learn so much that you wouldn’t otherwise.”

Paguio also stated that this immersion is a worthwhile experience, but added that every immersion is worth the investment. “I recommend everyone try any immersion that they can,” she said. “Even if you want Montana, and then you… get something else, that doesn’t matter because we’re here to serve… If you want to serve, it doesn’t matter where you are. It doesn’t matter if you’re in Portland, if you’re in Arizona, or if you’re in Montana.”