STARTING OVER BY ASHLEY HETTLER
|Poster above my desk|
Hanging above my desk is a poster that reads, “No hate, No fear, Refugees are welcome here”. Every time I look at it, I hear chanting in the streets and see thousands of people swarming Washington D.C., with their signs waving. Living in D.C. for 6 years was eye-opening. I was no stranger to protests, politics, and people marching for what they believe in. It’s inspiring, and exhausting. By late 2017, I knew it was time for me to leave D.C. and pursue a field I was passionate about. I had wanted to work for the International Rescue Committee (IRC) since graduating college, and Campus Compact had one opening to serve as a VISTA. I eagerly applied, had a few interviews, and 5 months later I found myself driving cross country with my mom and aunt to Missoula, Montana, to start a new career and a new life. Little did I know that I wouldn’t be the only one starting over.
|Glacier National Park (in September!)|
Settling into Montana was fast and furious. It was unlike anything I’ve experienced before. The climate is really dry (hallelujah!), I live within a few hours of 2 incredible National Parks, my car got frozen shut in the midst of winter, and walking down the street one day, I had a man look at me, tip his cowboy hat, and say “Howdy!”. I had never seen snow-capped mountains before, and I’m still not entirely sure what kombucha is, or why lots of Montanans love it. I shake my head sometimes and smile at how far outside of my comfort zone I am, and how good that feels.
I started my AmeriCorps VISTA service in late July when the IRC office was in the middle of a refugee “surge”. In this case, we had about 70 individuals come to Missoula over the span of 3 months. I was thrown into the craziness immediately. Between attending meetings, learning the abbreviations and lingo associated with refugee resettlement, and getting comfortable showing up at a client’s house and telling a family – that doesn’t speak English – to get in my car to go to an appointment – it all had its challenges.
Serving at the IRC has taught me more than I hoped for. In the first few months of service, I drove a mom and her 3 daughters to a school enrollment meeting. Towards the end of the meeting, the mom found out that public school was free for all of her kids, and she started to cry. She couldn’t believe it. A young man from Congo asked me if I was married, and was shocked (his jaw actually dropped) to find out that I was 25, not married, and didn’t have kids. I drove another man to his job interview, and he was the only black man in the store. Customers stared at him the whole time. If I thought that moving to Montana was a culture shock for me, it is nothing compared to the transition refugees face when they land in Missoula wearing flip flops in the dead of winter.
|My backyard on Christmas Day|
The IRC is doing amazing work, both domestically and internationally. They help people, who were forced from their homes due to violence and threats, to safety in the United States. Missoula has been consistently active in bringing refugees to Montana, and helping them become involved in the community.
Because of this year, I now belong to the AmeriCorps community, the IRC organization, and the city of Missoula, and for that, I am eternally grateful. AmeriCorps was my excuse to leave D.C., but it also became the very reason to stay in Montana and continue this service.