Raymond had just applied to move to Kenya to teach sign language to hearing-impaired students with the Peace Corps when COVID hit. Like many others, when volunteers were recalled, he was left looking for a new plan.
With previous experience working at a job center through a Goodwill and AmeriCorps partnership, he started following up on leads in that direction. And after reading a description for the first Montana Campus Compact (MTCC) AmeriCorps College Coach for Miles Community College, he was hooked. His assignment led him to Miles City, Montana, a town of around 8,000 inhabitants. After a lifetime of urban living, rural life came with some unexpected culture shock, even for a man who has been to more than a dozen different countries.
With time, he has not only adjusted but thrives. In the first eight months of his year-long term, Raymond has established the college’s Career Services Center where he supports students—many of whom are the first in their family to enter higher education—finding and preparing for careers they’ll love. He co-teaches a career skills development class and recruits volunteers for events such as 911 Day of Remembrance Project and MLK Read for Peace. And his community outreach has led to accomplishments like donating 334 pounds of food to the local food pantry. With Raymond’s close work with the community and new-found love of the outdoors, he may have a longer stay in Montana in mind. After all, for an amateur astronomer like Raymond, it’s a good place to see the stars.
What inspires you to volunteer?
Like a lot of high school and college students that I work with here, I didn’t know what to do, so I did just about everything. I worked in construction, hospitals and mental health centers, clinics and banking. I was all over the place.
I find it more rewarding to work in the nonprofit sector, much more than I did in the private sector. There’s a difference between the way I feel about working for the public and in the public interest. I just feel better as an individual.
Describe your volunteer role with Montana Campus Compact (MTCC) and AmeriCorps.
You can serve up to five terms and can work either direct service or increasing capacity of organization to do direct service. This is the first time that Montana Campus Compact has worked with Miles Community College here in Miles City. So, the college, in conjunction with AmeriCorps, created this position.
I help students identify their interests, strengths and strategies needed to achieve their career and life goals, both in-person and virtually. I co-teach a class on career development twice a week for high schoolers and here at the college. I put out a quarterly newsletter and do community outreach, too.
Tell me more about the MLK Read for Peace.
It’s a national initiative where volunteers go to elementary schools and high schools and read age-appropriate stories about Dr. King, his life and legacy to people who ordinarily wouldn’t get that kind of information. Then, they can write a poem about peace or draw a picture of what a peaceful world looks like to them. It was new for this town when I recently hosted it. That is one of the nice things about being here.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
I had no idea what I wanted to do when I was in school, and I’ve kind of fumbled my way through everything. That really helps me, because now I work with students in the same position. I help them figure out what’s going to work for them in terms of a career and then how to get on track and stay on track.
One student that I counseled had absolutely no interest in going to college. So, he came in, and we sat down and talked, just his parents, me and him. He started opening up about his interests, and we talked about being a museum curator. Then, I got a letter from the principal saying that he’d decided to come to college to pursue that. It was a complete turnaround.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
I’ve learned not to have any expectations, to go in with an open mind. A one-size-fits-all model doesn’t work. People are unique. You have to meet them where they are to get to where they want to go. I’ve also learned to listen more.
Are there any future partnerships, programs, or events that you are excited about?
Because I laid the foundation for MLK Read for Peace, 911 Day of Service and Global Youth Service Day, I’m looking forward to stepping up for the next time they come around. This time, I have a state representative who wants to come to say some words about 9/11. And I have a partnership with the library to do Local Youth Service Day.
Why is it important for others to get involved in causes they care about?
Historically, change comes through populations from the bottom up. When people at the top make changes, it’s because people at the bottom are of a singular mind about what needs to be different. People need to get involved. If everybody does a little bit at the end of the day, you’re going to have a lot done.
I used to be one of those people who sat around and watched things happen and always said, “Wow, somebody needs to step in and do that.” Eventually, I asked why that somebody couldn’t be me. That’s the attitude everybody should have. It can start right here.
What was it like moving to rural Montana from a big city?
When I came here, I figured I’d hit the ground running. I’ve worked in rural communities on the east coast, but I’d never actually lived in a rural community. The pace is slower. It was a culture shock. But after a while, I acclimated, and now I love it.
People are not living on top of each other. There are lots of open spaces full of natural beauty. I’ve become an outdoor person. I also went to my first rodeo and absolutely loved it.
When I go to Walmart, I sometimes get stared at. There aren’t a lot of Black people out here. Sometimes people see me according to their own version of culture shock. So, I allow latitude for that. I’ve had more people stop and talk to me and be friendly than any other kind of experience. For the people who aren’t there yet, I just give them the benefit of the doubt. I think that’s important.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
People are often conditioned from birth, but you can transcend that. That’s what I like about volunteering. It’s a transcendental experience. I always try to leave assignments as a better person than before. And I try to leave the work environment better than it was before I got there.
Do you have any plans for when your term is up?
I was offered a second term with AmeriCorps, so I signed up to extend my time here. I might stay longer.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Raymond? Find local volunteer opportunities.