Hopa Mountain gives the gift of literacy

By ANGIE FORD/Montana State News

You may never know Hopa Mountain was behind it, but at many offices around Gallatin County, your kids get free books.

This is because Hopa Mountain – a Bozeman based non-profit organization – spends millions of dollars each year getting free books into the hands of children, from infancy to 5 years of age.

Hopa Mountain is unique in its approach that it encourages the people already in place within a home or community to do what only they can do within the place of the greatest sphere of influence upon a child: where he or she lives.

Where other organizations take on a vast area of need and attempt to meet it themselves, Hopa Mountain works collaboratively within the community, reaching children through professionals they already trust.

When you go to a doctor’s office, or a WIC appointment, your children will be given a high-quality, age-appropriate book. The children get excited, the community caregivers get the satisfaction of knowing they contributed to the child’s literacy needs as well as their physical needs and Hopa stands in the background, delighted that their StoryMakers program is making stories while it gives them out.

“It is just such a tremendous gift,” said one mother (who asked to remain anonymous) outside a local medical facility that caters to low income families, “normally kids get stickers, but such a nice book? It boosts your faith in the generosity of humanity, and my kids’ eyes light up too. There’s something special about being given a book.”

According to the organization’s website, “Hopa Mountain works to expand and enhance community-based opportunities for youth and adults. The majority of these efforts are informal (out-of-school) trainings for community leaders, with an emphasis on informal science education, program development, non- profit capacity-building, appreciative inquiry and strategic planning.”

But this is just one aspect of Hopa Mountain’s two-pronged approach: They run leadership programs for Gallatin County youth, but they support other non-profit organizations across Montana, Wyoming and South Dakota as well.

“Not only do we invest in people but we also support people who … want to start nonprofit organizations of their own,” Executive Director Bonnie Sachatello-Sawyer said.

This strategy has worked well for Hopa Mountain, which has grown steadily since its inception. Sachatello-Sawyer remembers when the nonprofit began with a meager $5,000 annual budget. Now, the it has a $1.1 million budget and supports 15,000 students, she said.

When you walk into their humble office, a woodcarving sits on the shelf that announces the heartbeat that circulates through the organization’s members: “Be the change you want to see in the world.”

Even the slightest contact with the organization leaves this impression. One would think an organization with such an impressive budget would be more imposing, but everything from the office furnishings to the ease of interacting with their executive director reflects their desire to serve the community in a respectful way.

Hopa Mountain staff ignores prestige and invests their money in the people they exist to serve. Rarely has so much change been affected by so few staff members.

A third branch of Hopa’s outreach is their innovative Native American Science Fellows program, which offers Native American undergraduate and graduate students a chance to participate in community-based science organizations. According to their website, this program has four primary goals:

1) To increase the number of Native American students who are engaged in community-based geosciences education and careers;

2) To provide role models and work experience for Native American high school and college students interested in the geosciences;

3) To develop a career ladder network of Native students that are interested in pursuing geosciences careers; and

4) To build a network of community-based science professionals who are committed to the success of Native students and provide on-going support for personal, academic and professional success.  These goals contribute to national goals of developing a diverse, competitive, and engaged workforce.

The program is education- and career-impacting for those students who participate, providing a sense of community and very tangible ways to get involved in their field of interest.

Dominique David, a junior in the Earth Science—Geography program says of her experience as a Native Science Fellow, “When I got connected with my mentor I met a whole new kind of scientist that was in line with my values.

“The native science fellowship values my traditional knowledge and shows me a path with Western science so I can continue to value it. For the first time, I found a community of native nerds I felt like I could relate to, where there’s this sort of beautiful synergy of science and cultural tradition and value.  I see it as an opportunity for innovation for our scientific field.

“With the Native Science Fellowship it’s more just filling a quota, they support native student and science for the knowledge that they bring and the strengths that they take back to their community.”

Other students have had a chance to be involved in community outreach through Hopa Mountain as well. In Spring 2011, a group of students in a professional writing course at MSU were learning how to write grants and also interested in promoting literacy for local children.

They approached Hopa Mountain with the possibility of drafting a real grant to submit for them, were met with a warm reception and all the assistance they needed, including Sachatello-Sawyer’s cell phone and an invitation to call her whenever – even weekends – if they needed help.

The result was not only that the group learned how to write a grant, but they succeeded in procuring $2,000 for Hopa Mountain that would place more books in children’s hands all over Gallatin county. It was an unforgettable experience, they say, far more rewarding than the learning and the class grade alone could have provided.

Hopa is the Old English word for hope, and so, appropriately, Hopa Mountain stands in downtown Bozeman: a mount of hope for Montana youth young and old, a place to meld new technology and ancient traditions into a way to move confidently into an unknown future.

Edited by Matt Rule    

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