I’ve been interested in the power of community for a really long time. I grew up in a small town in Vermont where I had deep roots (several generations of roots) and went to small schools where my sense of community was consistently strong. Early in college I helped reinvigorate a community garden at my school and I wrote my thesis on the potential of farming and gardening to create a sense of community for resettled refugees in the United States.
It wasn’t until this year, however, that I found myself in need of a community. This past summer I moved across the country to work on Alpine Organic Farm in Montana, which was the farthest west I had ever been, and far from anyone I knew. To make matters more difficult, I left that farm this fall and made the move five hours northwest to begin my service term with FoodCorps in Somers, MT.
I knew no one. I began engaging with my community through volunteering and started to meet some people who have helped me to begin to feel at home here. The most important factor of my feeling at home here in northwestern Montana, however, has been the school communities where I serve. I cannot even begin to articulate how meaningful it has been for me that the students, staff and community members here in the Flathead Valley have opened their arms and welcomed me. Let me give you a few examples of what I’m talking about:
On my first day at Bigfork, I was sitting at my desk in the main office when the Superintendent walked by. We were introduced and the first thing he said was,
“You’ve got some big shoes to fill.”
And I did. The service member before me, Zoe Tucker, was pretty incredible at what she did, and I was intimidated. Fast forward to the middle of October and I’m standing next to the same superintendent frantically serving local Summer Squash Slaw to students and their parents while he serves scratch-cooked, local Chocolate Zucchini Pumpkin Bars. We are hosting a Take Your Parents to Lunch Day event at the elementary school with hundreds of parents in attendance—hundreds more than we expected. While I am serving the slaw samples to students I am nervous that I will be reprimanded because we didn’t request parental RSVPs, because the cafeteria didn’t have enough food ready, because there are such long lines at the cafeteria. Instead, grinning, the Superintendent just turned to me and said “Wow! This is so great! You are doing a fantastic job.”
“What are we trying today?”
“Oooh, tomatoes, my favorite!”
When I see students in the hallways of Cayuse Prairie School they ask me, “What are we trying today?” (because they are accustomed to weekly cafeteria taste tests by now). Even one of the Cayuse Prairie teachers brings in a Bobcats sweatshirt for me to wear to show that I have a place in the upcoming Bobcats Grizzlies rivalry game. When I go to Lakeside Elementary to meet with teachers about Breakfast in the Classroom, 4th graders come streaming into the classroom and immediately start exclaiming, “Yes! Miss Whitney’s here!” “I wonder what we’re learning about today?” “What are we trying today Miss Whitney?”
I was inspired to write about how important this sense of community has been for me because of how my morning started today. In the kitchen I chatted with the Bigfork food service director and staff about the weekend and then joked with the maintenance guys about all the snow. As I helped deliver the fresh fruit snack to classrooms I talked about good Montana books with a 5th grade teacher, was surprised to hear cheers from a 4th grade class upon my arrival, and welcomed with a choral “You look fabulous!” from a second grade class who apparently really like my new haircut.
I know that some people like to live in big cities and that some people like to work alone, behind a computer, but I cannot imagine anything better than spending my days serving in small schools who have welcomed me into their communities. I cannot imagine anything better than running into my students on the street, in the grocery store and even at the gym. Before this year, I had no idea how important my sense of community truly is, and I would like to thank every student who hugs me when I see her in the hallway and every teacher who asks me how my weekend was, because it is this interest and care that has made my time with FoodCorps so precious and so enjoyable.