Our Stories

Willamette Students Take an Unusual Break

Mountains, bare except for a light dusting of snow, cradle the sagebrush valley. The sounds are singular: the caw of a crow; a dog barking; the occasional car on Highway 95; the ever-present wind. In this isolated corner of northeast Nevada, the Quinn River, its path outlined by rushes pregnant with the pinks, yellows and greens of spring, switchbacks through 34,000 acres of the Fort McDermitt Shoshone-Paiute Indian Reservation. Rusting hulks of cars, sometimes three or four deep, huddle next to tiny houses with sagging porches or singlewide trailers with peeling paint and tires on the roof. Rib-thin packs of dogs meander the hills. Trash from the hilltop landfill blows across the landscape. Two white vans loaded with 20 Willamette University students, three adult advisors, sleeping bags and a dozen bags of food bump across the valley. They've come hoping to make a difference.

The group is part of Take a Break (TaB), an alternative spring break program where students from Willamette University in Salem, OR, volunteer their services during spring break to help others. It's Willamette University's second year in the unconventional program. Last year, 19 students and adults participated; this year 57. Their trip is one of three sponsored by the University. Other groups went to communities in Chicago, Il, and Jonestown, MS. The students come to this out-of-the way Indian reservation to paint, to repair, to clean up and to help out in anyway they can.

Why a group of young people would choose to spend seven days doing community service instead of partying with friends on the beaches of Florida or Cancun? Mary Toledo, a senior majoring in Japanese at Willamette and one of the group's student leaders, says she volunteered to "get out of the Willamette bubble." It's easy to go from class to class and not really meet people in the community," she says. "My goal is to make connections with people outside the Willamette community."

Emily Metrock, a junior from Ojai, CA, majoring in English, says she came "to have my perspective altered. I thought I'd come out here and do something completely different," she explains. "I've never been on an Indian reservation and I expect to have my views about the people who live here changed."

The group comes equipped with not only 23 willing workers, but also with tools and supplies. The $3,000 they raised, as well as support from the Lilly Project at Willamette, pays for everything from gas for the vans to food and supplies, including several gallons of paint, Spackle, paint brushes and scrapers. Their first job is to repaint two ramskackle houses belonging to tribe members.

Felicia Smart, a tribe member and administrative secretary for the Tribal Office, says that because the income of most members of her community is well below the poverty level, help from groups like Willamette's TaB is welcome. "Housing for the tribe is a problem here," she explains. "People don't have money to spend on repairing their homes, so programs like this are really good."

One of the first houses the group tackles belongs to Rose Curtis, a single mother who was raised at Fort McDermitt. Recently released from six-months in jail, she is unemployed. In the summer, she says she hopes to get hired on a fire fighting crew. For now, she receives $154 a month in general assistance from federal welfare.

The students scrape peeling paint off the weathered exterior of Curtis' house and carefully apply white latex. Stiff wind blows tiny specks of paint everywhere. Before long, the hands, arms, faces and hair of the Willamette volunteers are covered with a fine spray of paint. Perhaps inspired by the students, homeowner Rose Curtis rakes piles of debris off the threadbare lawn. Late in the afternoon, a good-natured paint fight breaks out between two girls, one wielding a paintbrush one a long-handled roller. Both students end up with long streaks of white paint on their clothing.

Just across the valley, a second group of students paint Annette Smart's house light blue with turquoise trim. Smart, 71, a lifelong resident of Fort McDermitt, has arthritis and walks with a cane. "These kids are pretty good help," she says as she sips tea in her tiny kitchen. A woodstove overheats the room and a large screen television blares out war news from halfway across the world. "These kids are working hard out there in the cold. I appreciate it."

Much of the weathered trim paint was scraped off the day before so the trim painting goes fairly quickly. Neither the homeowner nor the students have a long enough ladder, so one of the advisors hops up on the roof and hangs off the edge to scrape paint from the roof peak.

Mrs. Smart's three young grandchildren are fascinated by the students. At first, they hang shyly on the edges of the group. Before long, they are right in the middle of the action. The granddaughter helps with scraping and repainting a dresser. Michael Le Chevallier, a religious studies student from Lake Oswego and a self-proclaimed "kid person," chases the boys through the yard, making monster noises and swinging the youngsters over his head. The children's squeals of delight fill the yard.

"The little kids are really accepting," says Katie Myers, a sophomore majoring in history and French. "They want to know all about us. They ask lots of questions and they want to help."

Next to the old woman's house is a two-room shack occupied by one of Mrs. Smart's grown sons. Mrs. Smart walks through the shack and shakes her head. The air inside smells faintly of urine and mildew. "I haven't been out here in a long time," she says, poking the holes with her cane. "It's a mess."

The students strip off water-damaged wallpaper and repair basketball-sized holes in the walls of the tiny home with Spackle and newspaper before painting the walls white. They paint strips of wood blue and tack the new trim boards around the windows and doors. They haul an old dresser outside and strip off the chipped paint, replacing it with an eye-popping glossy bright blue.

At night, the students bunk in sleeping bags on the concrete floor of the Tribal Youth Center. Next door, there is a small kitchen where they mix up boxes of macaroni and cheese, canned green beans and fruit cocktail. Afterward, they gather for "reflection time," small group discussions of their impressions of the day. Then, late into the evenings, they play Trivial Pursuit, listen to music, braid each other's hair, write in their journals and snack on Rice Krispy treats and chips.

One evening, the students invite tribal members to share a potluck. Ten tribal members show up, including several young people. They bring mashed potatoes, macaroni salad and macaroni soup, fry bread with margarine and honey and pineapple upside down cake to go with the Sloppy Joes the students made.

After dinner, Dennis, a tribal elder, brings out his dance regalia -- leather pants and moccasins, an elaborate Bald Eagle feather headdress, two feather fans, ankle bells, beaded belts. His mother made the outfit, including the intricate beadwork, which he wears when he dances at Pow Wows.

Much of the tribe's cultural heritage has fallen away. They no longer do hand games, get together for community sings or hold Pow Wows. Few of the young people speak Paiute. Dennis is one of the last.

The Willamette students sit in a large circle on the gymnasium floor and Dennis tells a story. "Badger struggles carrying a big bag," he says, gesturing with his arms. He wears his gray-streaked hair in two long braids. "Wolf says, `I'm bigger and stronger. I can help you.' So Badger gives Wolf the bag and Wolf hurries to the top of the hill. But Badger is still far behind. Curious about the sounds coming from the bag, Wolf opens it up and a big wind comes out. The wind pushes the Wolf all the way to the Atlantic. To this day, that is why the east coast has the strong wind of tornadoes and the west coast does not."

By the end of the week, the Willamette students and their advisors have repainted and repaired four houses, washed windows and cleaned out a huge pile of wood debris from the community building area. On Friday night, the tribe holds a feast to thank the students for their hard work. They serve Indian tacos -- flaky fry bread wrapped around ground meat, cheese and lettuce.

As she fills her fry bread with ground beef, Mary Toledo sums up the importance of their Take a Break experience. "I feel so lucky to have been part of this," she says. "Especially in times of war, it's important that we care for each other. We could solve a lot of our problems if we cared for each other just a little bit more."