Last September, a New Yorker from Manhattan came to Tahlequah to begin a year’s commitment as a Volunteers In Service To America worker.
Paula Frisch wanted to work with elders, and she was assigned to the United Keetoowah Band of Cherokee Indians. This week, she’s on duty with a spring break camp for youth.
“It’s an opportunity to be in a place I’ve never been and work with a nonprofit or organization. Basically you choose what you do and where you do it,” said Frisch. “With Peace Corps, you don’t really choose.”
Once she knew her destination, Frisch Googled Oklahoma to learn about the tribes, history and culture.
“Mostly I looked at the Keetoowah website, history of the Cherokee people, Trail of Tears and the history of Oklahoma that made it what it is today to get some foundation,” she said.
It wasn’t too much culture shock, since she’s done community arts work in Pennsylvania and a Study Abroad semester in Mongolia. With a double major in Studio Art and Environmental Studies, she’s very interested in earning a Master of Fine Arts in Print Making. She’s especially excited about having a solo art show at the Northeastern State University art gallery in August.
One of her goals was to go somewhere unfamiliar to her. She achieved that, and she finds beauty in both her crowded, diverse home in the Big Apple and the friendliness of Tahlequah people.
“I really love being in a small community and seeing how small groups and initiatives are committed, and everyone seems to know each other. The community is very interconnected,” she said. “If you want to do something, you just have to find someone who’s involved.”
It’s been a much smoother transition than she expected.
“Adjusting and becoming welcome here didn’t take time at all,” said Frisch. “People are so friendly here.”
While she misses having her extended family nearby, the 24-year-old volunteer said so much is going on here, and she’s involved in hobbies and interests.
“I like working with the elders and seeing the same people every day, going to their homes and sharing in activities,” she said.
On a daily basis at the Elder Center, she greets everyone who comes in. On Wednesdays she teaches an arts and crafts class at 10:15, with a good turnout. The exercise class is not as popular. Nutrition is also discussed.
“I love watching the creative process; that’s constantly inspiring to me,” said Frisch.
She’s very glad she became a VISTA volunteer.
“I would never have had an opportunity to come here and connect,” she said. “Tahlequah is particularly interesting for its historic context. There are many smaller communities that are also very intertwined. In that way, it’s more similar to New York than I expected.”
The peace of everyday life, for Frisch, is to be close to nature.
“The natural environment makes me a more calm person. With peace in my everyday life, I’m more relaxed than if I was in New York,” she said. “I grew up in Manhattan, where my whole family is. Day to day, I have a commitment of visiting them.”
She misses the diversity of food in New York is one thing she definitely misses, said Frisch.
“You can get any kind of food at any time of day and experience 100 cultures in a day,” she said. “I hadn’t realized how normal that becomes.”
Every day here in Tahlequah is meaningful, and has affirmed Frisch’s desire to focus her future to being as hands-on as possible.
“I like that there’s time to tell stories and talk in a way that is very respectful of other people’s histories and combined histories,” she said. “I don’t see that so much where everyone has a different history and they’re in a rush. At the Elder Center, seeing people talk in a way that is familiar and comfortable is inspiring to me.”
Stepping outside one’s comfort zone can be scary, but it’s worth it, and Frisch’s parents have always encouraged her to challenge herself.
“It’s easy to get distracted about how intimidating or uncomfortable it is and not realize how much you can learn,” she said. “I encourage others to do that. Even in your own town, try a new food or meet someone new.”
ONLINE EXCLUSIVE: Visit www.tahlequahtdp.com to learn the history of VISTA.