25: A Walkabout in Wisconsin

25: A Walkabout in Wisconsin

From Chicken Soup for the Soul: Campus Chronicles

A Walkabout in Wisconsin

It’s easy to make a buck. It’s a lot tougher to make a difference.

~Tom Brokaw

While most of my colleagues interned their sophomore year at prestigious investment banks, I drove halfway across the country in my sputtering Toyota that summer to work with a Boys & Girls Club on Lac Courte Oreilles Indian Reservation in Wisconsin. Aside from praying that my car would not fall apart, I became more excited with every mile, as I anticipated this new opportunity to live and learn from the Ojibwa tribe. Princeton offered a special opportunity for students to improve our society through summer internships, and I jumped on the chance to do something that I might never have an option to do again.

Upon pulling into the driveway of the club, I realized that my challenge for the summer was not only building a cultural bridge between the staff at the Boys & Girls Club and the tribe members, but also tackling the crumbling state of both the program and the building. I spent my first hour on the job digging up some old clothes, leftover cans of paint, and plenty of sheets.

The listless group of ten-year-olds slumped on the front steps of the club didn’t know what overcame them until they were outfitted in oversized rags and armed with paintbrushes. We were going to battle! The adversary was the color gray! A few paint cans later, I stopped to scan the tangled battleground. The faces of my soldiers were camouflaged with speckles of blue, red, green, and orange, cheeks ruddy from laughing, and their eyes held an eager sense of pride and accomplishment.

In just a few hours, a myriad of colors permeated the building and the walls were decorated with a hodgepodge of little handprints. From that day on, they understood that this club was no longer just a building where parents dumped children off for the free supervision and food, but rather a place they could call their own. Throughout the summer, we continued our crusade to renovate “our place” with boundless ideas, despite our limited supplies. The children became empowered as they observed their ideas turning the club into a vibrant, thriving place. It became their battle, and they won.

But there were many more battles to come. One night, I decided to host a camping night. I had visions of a few campers and me roasting marshmallows and telling ghost stories. The night before the big event, I only had three children signed up. While not really a success, it was a start. However, the night of the sleepover, word got out on the reservation about a free camping night (i.e. free babysitting) and children were dropped off in droves. One hundred children were dropped off with just two adults to supervise, and I almost had a heart attack.

To add to the madness, a surprise furry visitor smelled all of the food and decided to stop by for a snack. All I saw when the lumbering beast approached the crowd of children was the next morning’s possible headlines, “Grizzly Bear Eats Native American Children and Jersey Girl.” A call to the local ranger was made, and I decided this scene was better than the movie I had planned to show. Somehow, all of the children and the two adults made it through the night with only a few scrapes on knees and permanent wrinkles on brows.

Although every day I was met with frustrations and unanticipated disappointments, I went to bed every night knowing that I had learned more from this tribe about life than I had in my classes. Before long, the summer was over and I packed up my Toyota with treasures created by the children, my heart stuffed with memories that I would carry with me for a lifetime. You have your whole life to work in a suit and sit behind a desk, but in college you are given the rare gift of time — time to explore who you are through unusual opportunities that only the freedom of college allows. I have had a few “desk jobs” since graduating, yet the most memorable job I have ever had was my internship with the Ojibwa people at the Boys & Girls Club.

~Michelle Dette Gannon

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