It’s that time again! Camp Paxson 2022.

Summer is on its last legs. Nights are becoming cooler. Days are a little shorter. And the first day of classes in Missoula County Public Schools is rapidly approaching.

Every year, this changing of seasons is bittersweet for us at Soft Landing Missoula. On one hand, it means the return of after-school tutoring and the chance to see more families regularly walk through the doors at the Community Center. On the other hand, it means the conclusion of our long lineup of summer activities for the youth program (rafting, hiking, trail runs!) and a farewell to many volunteers, interns and AmeriCorp members who do so much great work during the season.

But what we all love about summer’s end is our annual youth trip to Camp Paxson near Seeley Lake!

This year, around two dozen middle- and high-schoolers made the trip to one of Western Montana’s most historic sites. Camp Paxson sits on a 15-acre peninsula that was cared for by the Salish, Blackfeet and Crow tribes for hundreds of years prior to European colonization. Though the land and its stewards far predate the construction of the present day buildings, the cabins and other structures were built during the Great Depression by the Civilian Conservation Corps. Camp Paxson began as a camp for the Boy Scouts of America, and a couple years later, it became a school for smokejumpers for the United States Forest Service.

Today, it’s leased by a nonprofit to all kinds of organizations and groups to host gatherings, and here at Soft Landing Missoula, we are lucky enough to use the space for three days and two nights as our bookend to summer every year!

The highlight of the weekend was certainly all the swimming. Kids spent hours splashing, jumping off the dock and canoeing! Those who didn’t swim – or at least not as much – enjoyed sand volleyball and games of soccer, and we had an afternoon of crafts including tie-dye and beading.

Though kids spent most of the day doing a variety of activities, everyone came together over meals. We cozied up to the long, wooden tables in the dining hall and shared traditional dishes from some of the cultures represented by campers such as Congolese plantains for breakfast and Syrian lentils and rice for dinner. We had almost as much fun cooking this food as we did eating it! The kitchen turned into a bonafide dance party.

It wouldn’t be summer without a proverbial gathering around the campfire. And while fire restrictions meant we had to forego the actual flames, we did conclude the weekend all together for a talent show. Kids choreographed dances and shared music from their home countries, and we passed along traditional campfire snacks with a twist: a cake celebrating Soft Landing’s three summer Americorp members who made this summer so special – Rachel, Matthew and Lydia!

As the sun set on our final night at Camp Paxson and on the summer overall, we paused for a moment of gratitude – for the amazing kids and their families we get to learn from every day; for the special moments shared in beautiful places; and for all the people in this community who help to make it feel like home for all of us.

Girls Empowerment Trip to Lake Inez 2022

Summer has been a whirlwind for the youth program at Soft Landing Missoula.

Most recently, we wrapped up our annual overnight trip for girls, a chance for young women in the youth program to feel comfortable and empowered in a space of their own.

Eight girls spent three days and two nights at Lake Inez just north of Missoula. The trip had all the makings of a typical and awesome summer outing in Montana: a hike to Holland Falls, river dips and time spent on the lake. But it was so much more than that.

Girls enjoyed a lot of time and opportunity to share with one another — their culture, their languages, their foods and their experiences in Missoula. Though many of them are frequent participants at youth events, they didn’t know one another all that well since it’s not uncommon for teenagers to stick with the people they already consider friends at the regular programming. Being in a small group opened the door for new relationships.

“It really was an opportunity for cross-cultural interaction and for new friendships to begin,” said Natalia Boise, who helps to organize Soft Landing Missoula’s youth program. “These intimate settings where we get to take kids in smaller groups is where those start to happen. That’s really cool to see.”

One of the ways this kind of exchange was facilitated was through a musical chairs-style game. While music played, people would move in a circle, and when the music stopped, whoever ended up in the designated “hot seat” would answer a number of questions about herself from the group.

Girls said this was one of their favorite parts of the weekend because they got to learn so much about one another that they didn’t know prior.

The weekend was also a testament to the power of food as a way to build cultural bridges.

Rather than offer more quintessential “American” meals for the lake trip, youth program organizers decided to give girls the responsibility of picking a dinner recipe from their own households, doing the grocery shopping and preparing the meal for the group on different nights.

Sitting down at a table over meals sparked a lot of conversation about peoples’ different backgrounds and culinary traditions. Some girls even asked for recipes to be shared so they could pass it along to their parents to cook back home! This approach was a new one for these overnight trips, but it’s one that youth program leaders said they hope to incorporate more often since it created such excitement, enjoyment and open exchange about different cultures.

Through all of this bonding and fun in the outdoors and kitchen, girls were also encouraged to develop new empowerment and life skills. For example, they were given a financial grocery budget and tasked with going to the supermarket to shop for the group. They quickly learned how quickly the tab can run up if you go through those aisles without a plan!

Additionally, they visited the Museum of Mountain Flying on their way out of town from Missoula where they got a tour from a female pilot and checked out the inside of firefighting planes. Who knows, maybe we now have a future pilot in our midst!

Finally, throughout the weekend, the girls were given the comfort and privacy of a safe space, one where they could ask hard questions, talk about intimate topics and feel safe speaking without judgment or some of the co-ed dynamics that can give any high schooler pause.

They did that at the dinner table and during activities, but they also participated in relationship-building and reflection exercises that spurred these kinds of conversations. For example, each girl completed a vision board – they cut our pictures from magazines and pasted them onto a poster board to illustrate their hopes, dreams and aspirations for the future.

“It was really important to have that kind of space for them to connect and talk about their experiences,” Natalia said. “There’s a lot of value in having a space set aside for girls, and girls empowerment is really important regardless of the culture.”

Big thanks goes out to Natalia and two Americorp team members, Rachel and Ada from Soft Landing Missoula and the International Rescue Committee, respectively, for coordinating and chaperoning the trip. We also want to thank Jennifer Elison who so graciously allowed us to use her cabin for the weekend and gave the girls a fantastic place to lay their heads after long days out on the lake!

World Refugee Day 2022

“This is the best day of my year. I wish we could have a World Refugee Day party everyday.”

Afghan father

June 20 marks World Refugee Day, a global commemoration established by the United Nations to celebrate the experience of refugees across the world and a time to honor the joy, experiences and resilience of this incredible community. Here at Soft Landing Missoula, we host an annual weekend gathering to commemorate the day centered around what we consider three universal languages: food, music and soccer.

It’s our favorite day of the year because we get the chance to bring together all kinds of amazing humans – refugees and immigrants who call Missoula home, staff members and their families, volunteers, community partners, and many more! This year’s event was no different, but it might have been even more exciting because it was the first World Refugee Day celebration in three years that wasn’t significantly compromised by the COVID-19 pandemic.

We were truly overjoyed to spend the day with families and friends – those we’ve known for years and those newer arrivals we’ve only recently met. This year’s event swelled to roughly 250 people, and it was one heck of a party!

The afternoon began with pick-up soccer games at Fort Missoula, followed by food and a musical performance by Djebe Bara, a community drum and dance group led by Oumar Keita, originally from Guinea. Throughout the day, people participated in a craft project in which they could pin their journey to Missoula on a large wooden map using safety pins and string. Music and dancing lingered into the evening and people from different countries mixed it up on the drums and the dance floor.

As is the case with so much of the work we do at Soft Landing, the World Refugee Day celebration would not have been possible without the generous support of community partners. The International Rescue Committee provided food, the Missoula Alliance Church helped with transportation, the City of Missoula and its Police and Fire Departments offered both outreach and support (the fire truck was a huge hit with kids and adults alike!), and a number of local service providers – including Buckle Up Montana, Let’s Move Missoula, and Moving Mountains – tabled at the event to connect with attendees about their offerings within the community.

Below are a few reflections from those who attended that reflect the joyful spirit of the event!

“The skies threatened and the wind blew cold, but our community was undeterred. Soccer was played! Food was eaten, including a special blend of ice cream created in collaboration with the Big Dipper. People traced their journeys to Missoula on a huge multicolored map. And at the end of the night, our very own Chef Oumar and his drum and dance band, Djebe Bara, played. Kids free-ranged all over the dance floor. Then several Congolese women shimmied out. A few minutes later, a line of Afghan men danced onto the floor. Those drum beats were irresistible! I sat and held my daughter as she dripped ice cream all over me and thought about all that these folks had to get through to arrive at this moment in Missoula MT, dancing together under the mountains.”

Beth Baker, United We Eat Program Manager

“We gathered the more than 50 soccer players into a big circle to welcome them and lay a few ground rules before breaking into teams. We decided to count off by 4’s in order to make the 4 teams, which it turns out is a distinctly American thing to do. The players fumbled and giggled their way through counting by 4s, helping confused neighbors remember their numbers. By the time we got around the circle, everyone was laughing. As teams broke off and handshakes and high fives were given with new teammates, I realized we had more than 10 different countries of origin represented on the field. Once on the field, all those differences melted away into the common language of soccer.”

Molly Cottrell, Deputy Director of Soft Landing Missoula

“World Refugee Day is good because you get to see people your same color. Having many people around who are the same as me makes me feel less alone.”

Congolese middle-schooler

“My favorite moment was when a Congolese man was playing music from his country and then all the people from different countries started dancing. This made me feel the merging of cultures together and that everyone is welcome.”

Rozan Shbib, United We Eat Kitchen Assistant

“I loved it when a young Afghan man got to take a turn on the drums. He looked like he was levitating. He had the biggest smile on his face. It was awesome.”

Maria, Soft Landing Missoula Donor Engagement and Impact Director

“There are many things I like about this day. I get to interact with people from other cultures. I see their clothing, their food.”

Afghan woman and United We Eat chef

“I loved it when Paul Mwingwa from the Democratic Republic of the Congo gave a welcome to the crowd, beginning with a greeting of “hello” in everyone’s native language.”

Mary Poole, Executive Director of Soft Landing Missoula