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All through the war in Liberia, Maddie Collins kept her Helena High School diploma in a secret zippered pocket, safe from the prying eyes of soldiers at checkpoints – a reminder of the year she spent as an exchange student when a Montana family adopted her as their own. It proved to be a ticket to a better life.
Her host parents, together with their congressional delegation and a local nursing school, helped Ms. Collins escape the war and welcomed her again in August 1991. Now Ms. Collins is a nurse at the local VA, a captain in the Army Reserve, and a pillar of her community along with her husband, who became the first African American to win a mayoral election in Montana state history two years ago and is now running for U.S. Senate.
She worries the United States is in danger of losing its status as a symbol of hope and freedom in the world’s eyes. But, she adds, “Our collective vision for an America that accepts people of all backgrounds is what I believe will help us overcome this challenge sooner rather than later. That’s what gives me hope.”
When the war got especially hard – when bullets littered the streets and food was scarce in the Liberian capital of Monrovia – Maddie Collins would think of the mountains and streams of Montana.
There, on a ranch outside Helena, lived a family that had welcomed her with open arms as a high school exchange student. All during the Liberian civil war, she carried her Helena High School diploma with her in a secret zippered pocket. Those were harrowing times – sucking condensed milk out of a can for sustenance, having her home invaded in the middle of the night, taking refuge in the operating room of a hospital during a military raid.
Back in Montana, her honorary American family stood ready to host her again. On her first attempt, the visa official denied her application.
But her host parents lobbied their congressional delegation and, with the help of a local nursing school in Helena where Ms. Collins planned to enroll, they succeeded in securing her a student visa. Then, on the eve of her departure, she got two hard pieces of news. The United States would not allow Wilmot, her new husband, to accompany her. And she learned she was pregnant.
Ms. Collins went anyway, moved back in with the Nachtsheims, and enrolled in nursing school. When she went into labor, Mr. Collins was thousands of miles away.
“I remember thinking, ‘I wish Wilmot could see her right now. I don’t think he’d ever see her in a more beautiful light,’” said Jaymie Sheldahl, Ms. Collins’ American “sister,” in an interview last year.
After giving birth, Ms. Collins placed her daughter in Jaymie’s arms. “Her name,” she said, “is Jaymie Louette.”
“It was the family and sense of community I had in Helena, Montana, that gave me hope that home was waiting for Wilmot and me,” says Ms. Collins. “But getting there was the hardest part, and it was the part I left up to God.”
Little Jaymie was nearly 2 years old before her dad finally arrived at the Helena airport. Today, the Collinses are pillars of Helena, the capital of the least black state in America. Two years ago, Wilmot Collins – encouraged by their son, Bliss – became the first African American elected mayor in the history of Montana’s statehood. (The Monitor told Mayor Collins' story late last year. You can read it here: "How a refugee turned mayor seeks to transcend politics of divisiveness.")
Now Mr. Collins is running for the U.S. Senate. Jaymie is serving in the U.S. Navy. And Ms. Collins, who works at the local VA hospital, is less than a month away from completing her doctorate of nursing practice as a geriatric nurse practitioner.
If there is one theme running through the Collinses’ work, their military service, and their countless volunteer activities, it is a desire to give back to the community and the country that gave them a second chance.
“While Liberia will always be a part of me and who I am today, America symbolized a sense of renewal for me,” says Ms. Collins. “Because even after everything Wilmot and I went through together, it was America that showed us hard work and patience will pay off, and if you stay true to yourself in this country and treat others with love and decency, your past doesn’t solely define what your future will be.”
In those early days in Helena, she would drive past the National Guard Armory on her way to nursing school, and her heart would start pounding – a vestige of the trauma she had experienced during the war. But she decided to confront that fear, she explained in an interview last year. “I just joined to get over my fear – and to give back,” said Ms. Collins, who has risen to the rank of captain in the Army Nurse Corps.
She has also worked for Habitat for Humanity and helped with the local food share. Her family recently helped a Cuban family settle here, just as others had done for them. Now the Cubans have also become very involved in the community and are teaching salsa dancing.
As a doctoral student, she has been pursuing a project to help the city’s homeless population. “My heart is in helping the marginalized of society – people who don’t have the means to speak for themselves or are too busy struggling to stay alive,” she says.
It has not all been easy in Helena. Her family has faced racist threats and slights over the years, and her husband’s mayoral election was not warmly received by all. Montana has a strong white supremacist movement, and Mr. Collins’ advocacy for Montana to reopen its doors to refugees faced resistance.
While she believes diversity contributes to America’s strength, she says it’s been a challenge for various groups to understand each other across those differences. That will only get harder, she says, if polarization and division are embedded in every aspect of society. “We are vulnerable to losing our [status as a] symbol of hope and freedom in the world’s eyes,” says Ms. Collins.
But she adds, “I’ve seen America rebuild itself in times of great difficulties historically, and since I have arrived in this country,” such as after 9/11 or the Great Recession. “Our collective vision for an America that accepts people of all backgrounds is what I believe will help us overcome this challenge sooner rather than later. That’s what gives me hope.”
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