A year of service. Eleven months, seven students, four new roommates, one Native American reservation, zero familiar faces, and thousands of miles away from home – that’s what I signed up for. I signed up for the unknown, the unfamiliar, and the promise of a life-changing experience. I signed up to move across the country, as a freshly graduated 22 year old, leaving everything and everyone I knew behind to live with four strangers. Breaking up with the familiarity and comfortability that Dayton, Ohio had given me for so many years, I left behind my beloved soccer cleats- the one constant in my life since the age of four- now tossed to the side as extra weight I couldn’t afford in the two suitcases I was allowed for the move. Frequently reassuring friends and family that I’d be back soon enough, that I’d get to pick up where we all left off, as I wondered desperately what would change inside me during this time. Secretly, I wanted to fast forward to July of 2017, so that I could be reunited with everything I once knew. So that I could see just how I would be changed. I needed to know. The thought of the unknown was killing me. Would I come back the same person? Would I even move back at all?
Before embarking on this year long journey, I struggled with anticipation. Of course, I had done my fair share of internet stalking the Mercy Volunteer Corps program I had nervously but proudly committed to, in hopes of giving myself an idea of how this year would go. Nothing I read online, no pictures, and no reassuring comments from friends could have prepared me for what was about to happen.
In the six months that I have lived on Navajo Nation and worked at St. Michael’s Association for Special Education teaching a classroom of medically fragile students, I have been changed in ways I thought were unimaginable. As I sit here in my living room, watching the sun slowly sink behind the silhouettes of my beloved red rocks as my Arizona sky turns beautiful shades of purple and pink- I am happy. I am content. I am thankful for everything this year living on the Rez has taught me:
- I now know the feeling of unconditional love. One look into the face of one of the seven little beautiful humans that I teach and I am complete inside.
- I know that it is okay to take leaps. To move across the country. It will slowly become the best decision you have ever made.
- Strangers just might turn out to be your best friends. Living on the third floor of a school building just might turn out to be the greatest adventure, even when it consists of running downstairs to do laundry and passing elementary age students walking to class. Money just might not mean a thing. Stipends are fun if you make them fun. And also… I might, just MIGHT be on my way towards becoming a halfway decent cook.
- The passion I once desperately feared I would lose, as I stepped off that college soccer field for the last time, has been reborn. It is reborn each morning when I step into my classroom, and that passion burns brighter holding the hands of my students than it ever burned with a ball at my feet.
- A smile is worth a thousand words. Although my students cannot speak, some cannot hear, some cannot see, and most cannot use their body functionally- one smile from one student in one day and I feel as though my job is complete. Smiles are universal, and smiles are so, so beautiful coming from my seven, handsome little men.
- I am capable. As a perfectionist, I am learning to let go of notions I hold inside my head. Sometimes it is enough to just be. Everyone appreciates someone who is fully present.
- There is nothing a good hike cannot fix. Stepping onto the red rocks, feeling the fresh Arizona air on your skin, and gazing upon the beauty of the Navajo Nation sprawled out in front of you- I am at peace.
- There is nothing a good hike cannot fix- that is if you have the correct shoes on. Once there is that Arizona dirt, mud and clay, seeping into your feet- there is NOTHING that CAN fix the state of your shoes. Bring rain boots. And wear them every day.
- Strength doesn’t come from the number of muscles in your body. Strength comes from within. It comes in abounding leaps from the hearts of the seven humans I spend my weekdays with, as they battle more challenges and obstacles each day than I ever knew existed. And they always come out on top… with smiles. These little ones are my heroes.
- God is everywhere. He is present in the mountains surrounding my apartment. I can feel the power He emits during every Navajo ceremony I attend. I can hear him in the conversations I share with my extremely hard working co-workers and my four community members who I now consider family. Yet most of all, I can see Him present each morning, in the form of seven adorable humans, one by one, being wheeled into my classroom and into my arms.
Thank you Navajo Nation and thank you Mercy Volunteer Corps, for everything.
Jessie Gross: St. Michaels Navajo Reservation, AZ