The Kindness of Strangers by Donna Stuccio

December 10, 2021
Donna serves in Browning, MT at Blackfeet Community College

I grew up on a quiet little street in the coal mine region of northeast Pennsylvania that dead ended at railroad tracks. The coal cars would wobble and rock as they shook the ground below me. I would rush to collect coal that toppled from the overflowing cars. The deep black anthracite would come in handy for hopscotch. It was the 1960’s, years before jumbo sticks of colorful chalk were the norm. While counting cars, I anxiously waited for the end of the train and the always gracious man in the red caboose.  He exchanged waves with me, bravely hanging on and swaying from the pole, my first clear memory of the kindness of strangers. I would hope upon hope to spot the mythic hobos who hop on and hop off a moving train, weaving across the country, back and forth. The remnants of their camps, evidence of their existence, waited on the other side of the track, a few yards and a whole lifetime away from my little house on Miner Street. Someday…someday I would do that. Travel the country. See the glorious west I only knew from watching 1960’s westerns. Let go of the familiar and try a new life. Unseat my comfort.

Donna and her daughter, Julia, in New York City after catching a show

This year, that fantasy from my childhood collided with serendipity. I knew deep in my heart it was time to explore a new chapter. It was my much braver and adventurous daughter, Julia, transplanted from Philadelphia to my home this past winter because of COVID, who suggested we both look at AmeriCorps for life changing opportunities. Within about a week we were both accepted and by mid-summer,  Julia was off to City Year in a North Philadelphia 5th grade class. Soon after, I anxiously boarded the Amtrak Empire Builder from Syracuse, where I’ve spent the last 35 years building a career in criminal justice practice and higher education, to head to Blackfeet Community College on the Blackfeet Nation in Montana. There was no doubt in my mind that I had to embark on this journey by train. And there was no doubt that Blackfeet Community College was the right choice for my destination.

North Dakota plains outside the Amtrak

To say I was giddy with anticipation for the five months leading up to my journey on the Empire Builder would be an understatement….it was tempered by a good dose of “wait….what the heck am I doing?? I know nothing about Montana!” But I surrendered to the unknown, which to be completely honest, does not come easy to me.  Once the train left the station, I no choice but to embrace it and was rewarded by its gifts: the Rocky Mountains, Glacier National Park, endless sky, spectacular vistas that feed my photographer’s soul, sounds of the trains that run through the Great Northern Plains all day and all night, the incredibly kind Blackfeet community including everyone at Blackfeet Community College, the dogs – well, most of them – who wander the streets, the kindness of many strangers throughout my journey, and most notably the family on the Blackfeet Nation who welcomed me into their home for Thanksgiving.

An October sky in Browning

When I finally arrived on campus this past September, I hit the ground running, anxious to learn everything. I listened intently to the sage advice that came my way about everything, such as making sure I have a really big can bear spray, a warm coat, snow tires, Milk Bones stashed in my car if encountered an ornery dog and energy bars for me just in case I let lost in the oh too frequent and infamous white outs along the Rocky Mountain Front.

The procession leading Chief Old Person’s casket to the Tribal Office to lie in state

When Chief Earl Old Person, who had served the Blackfeet Nation for over 60 years, passed in October, I witnessed the outpouring of respect and observed the culturally rich traditions practiced during the four days of mourning. The wonderful women who prepared the traditional feed, embraced my eagerness to learn how to make fry bread but then kept me safe as I almost burned myself when I interpreted “Now, throw the dough on the hot grease” literally. I was aware that everyone looked out for the elders and young children who were eagerly searching for a way to be useful while we prepped and served. One of the most moving things I’ve learned about the Blackfeet is their concern for each other; to make sure no one is hungry. I observe that in action daily on my campus, at FAST Blackfeet food pantry where I volunteer occasionally and of course, during the mourning and celebration of their beloved chief.

The lodges outside of the Blackfeet Tribal Council building in honor of Chief Earl Old Person

Due to the generosity of countless people in the Blackfeet community, I am gaining a deeper and clearer understanding of the Blackfeet Ways of Knowing. In turn, my ability to connect with students in my capacity as an academic mentor, has become clearer. When a student visits my office with an assignment, first I am excited because I get one on one time with that student.  But then, as I read the content, I was privy to things I never knew. There was a recipe for fry bread with a double secret ingredient, a fascinating explanation of beaver mimicking in human dam building, and critical Blackfeet history. I enrolled in a course, Federal Indian Law and Policy, which provided the opportunity to jump into a midterm study session with other students in addition to gaining tremendous insight into the disastrous federal policies that have wreaked havoc on the lives and land of Indigenous tribes.

I will be forever grateful to my daughter as we share our service year together, albeit on opposite sides of the country, and AmeriCorps and Montana Camus Compact for the collective trust that led to this service opportunity. I am gratefully awash in the tsunami of knowledge, beauty, challenges, and friendship that has come my way. The most valuable lesson so far has been that luckily, I am still a work in progress; that gaining knowledge and diving into the unknown should remain a lifelong pursuit. That wisps of ideas and dreams in our childhood are sometimes prescient, so tuck them in safely for the long haul. There are strangers ahead with open arms and an endless amount of kindness.