In this month’s Lasallian Volunteers “Ministry of the Month,” we are highlighting a ministry of the Midwest District. The Lasallian Volunteers serving at De La Salle Blackfeet School (DLSBS) in Browning, Montana are all 2nd years and are Ruth Ficaro, Jon Ficaro and Matt Loudon. Ruth and Jon are graduates of Lewis University. Jon in 2007 and in 2014 and Ruth graduated in 2011. Matt is a 2015 graduate from Saint Mary’s College of California.
WHAT IS DE LA SALLE BLACKFEET SCHOOL? De La Salle Blackfeet School is a San Miguel-model middle school located on the Blackfeet Indian Reservation in Browning, Montana. As a San Miguel school, it shares many of the same qualities that our other San Miguel Schools do: small class sizes, non-tuition driven, extended day, extended year, with a culturally sensitive, student centered curriculum for middle school students that allows for greater success. What makes DLSBS unique is it is the only San Miguel School in our Region in a rural area and the first serving primarily Native Americans.
WHAT IS THE SERVICE THAT MATT, RUTH, AND JON PROVIDE? Ruth serves as the 7th grade homeroom teacher, and teaches 8th grade Language Arts and Reading. She is also in charge of the writing curriculum for 7th and 8th grade Language Arts and Reading. Matt serves as the 5th grade homeroom teacher and teaches 4th and 5th grade Social Studies. He also teaches 6th, 7th, and 8th grade Math and serves as the Rugby Coach. In addition to these duties, Matt offers after-school math help and is a chaperone for extra-curricular activities that the school offers. Matt and Ruth are joined by Jon Ficaro, Ruth’s husband. Jon serves as the 8th grade homeroom teacher, and he teaches 8th grade Social Studies, 6th grade Religion, and 5th grade Health & Wellness; he also teaches an enrichment course called Community of Inquiry. Jon also plays the important role of being the Immersion Program Director, guiding over 30 groups of high school and college groups who come to volunteer at DLSBS.
HOW DO THESE LASALLIAN VOLUNTEERS TOUCH MINDS AND HEARTS AT THEIR SERVICE SITE? The city of Browning is located in one of the poorest in our nation. The per capita income on the reservation is less than $12,000. Because of this, the people have fallen victim to all the problems that poverty lays at their feet: chronic unemployment, hunger, poor housing, domestic violence, and drug and alcohol dependency. The Blackfeet are a proud people who are determined to create a better future for their children. As Ruth notes, “Many of the students on the reservation are living in situations that do not provide stability and it brings me joy to offer something so simple to their lives. Part of being present is making sure my students feel heard, that can be as easy as making sure to check in with a student who really needs a conversation before morning assembly or greeting a student every day no matter what the response. Giving them the opportunity to write and express themselves in class has been such a mutual experience of teaching.”
HOW ARE FAITH, SERVICE, AND COMMUNITY A LIVED REALITY FOR THESE VOLUNTEERS AT THIS MINISTRY? So much of the work of a volunteer doesn’t just take place in the classroom or office setting, but extends beyond that into the future of the students and clients of our volunteers. As the 8th grade homeroom teacher, Jon begins and ends his day with his group of twelve 8th grade students, who will be making the transition to the public high school next year. He and the other faculty, staff, and volunteers at DLSBS prepare the 8th grade to make this transition from the Catholic school environment to public school and celebrate their achievement with a class trip which the community fundraises for throughout the year. Last year they fundraised for a trip to Chicago, Illinois and visited another San Miguel school in the Back of the Yards community where they met with their 8th grade students and shared each other’s culture. The students from DLSBS also visited museums and the zoo, tourist sites (The Bean, Willis Tower, Water Tower Place) Notre Dame University, and Lewis University. Jon explained the impact it had on him when he says,“The opportunity to lead these students in an unfamiliar setting, seeing the awe in their eyes inspired by the experiences, and to watch their transformation into young adults ready for the challenges ahead was itself a transformational experience as their teacher.” One of the most unique parts of DLSBS is that a majority of the faculty and staff are volunteers. This gift of self inspires our volunteers in their prayer and faith life. Ruth notes, “The Lasallian value of service is lived every day at DLSBS, there is not a moment of the day that cannot be in service to your students, community members and peers. God is always present.”
Because Browning is such a small town and in such remote area; the next “big city,” is two hours or more away, community plays a huge role in the lives of our Lasallian Volunteers. The volunteers are extremely involved in the lives of not just the kids but also the lives of the families. Matt shared, “I may not recognize everyone in town, but I can be fairly certain they recognize me. Accordingly, I must always be sure to behave in a way that best represents the school, both on and off campus. We are a temple in this community and, whether I like it or not, I have become a column. DLSBS is a community within a community. We hope to be the fire that casts light on the darkest corners of town. Within a community as sacred as ours, service and faith are intrinsically attached.”
HOW DO THESE VOLUNTEERS DESCRIBE THEIR EXPERIENCE OF GOD IN THEIR MINISTRY?
Faith is such an important aspect of the volunteer experience. Community prayer, mass, and the personal journey are all aspects of the volunteer year(s). As Gerard Manley Hopkins famously declared, “The world is charged with the grandeur of God,” and it is clear that our volunteers find God in their service. Jon says, “I had a holy moment with one of my 6th grade students who I asked to stay after school to work on homework. As we went through each assignment, I helped him draw the answers out of the text and we talked about how he wanted to make sure that he brought his grades up to be eligible to participate in sports. Even though we finished the work he needed to complete, we still ended up talking more about what he wanted to be when he grew up than we did about each assignment. Once again I found myself in the place where you are mindful of the moment and we can’t help but see God in that place.”
WHAT DO THE VOLUNTEERS IN THE 2016-2017 COHORT SAY TO COLLEGE SENIORS ABOUT THE LASALLIAN VOLUNTEERS PROGRAM?
Our current volunteer cohort is so passionate about the program and have so many positive things to share with young people thinking about giving a year or years to serve with us. Jon had this to say about his years in Montana, “Since coming to DLSBS last year, during the school year, the summer, and the beginning of this year, I have had the opportunity to be a part of something truly special, inspirational, and transformative. All I had to do was answer the call to service.” Ruth recommends the program as well as she believes that there is a special opportunity for growth with support that the Lasallian Volunteers provides through community life with the Brothers, the alumni network, and the closeness of the people in the cohort. She articulates this so well when she says, “The changes and transitions of adult life can be overwhelming however, to be able to do so in a supportive environment while learning about and serving is an experience that you may never have again. Lasallian Volunteers gives you the unique moment to grow by helping others and in turn, discover yourself.”