GREAT FALLS – Although Wilmot Collins beat four-term incumbent Jim Smith to become Helena’s mayor last November, his story does not begin with the 2017 mayoral election.
His life story begins in Liberia, extends to Ghana and the Ivory Coast, and finally lands in the United States. It includes his struggles as a refugee, his first-hand knowledge of applying for and gaining U.S. citizenship, and also his decision to run for mayor in the town he calls home.
On Monday evening, Collins told a crowd, gathered at the Episcopal Church of the Incarnation in Great Falls for an event hosted by Great Falls Rising, about his life experiences.
He came to the United States 24 years ago as a refugee after escaping his native Liberia during a civil war.
His wife Maddie had been a foreign exchange student in Helena and she wanted to return to Montana. She arrived in 1991 with a scholarship to Carroll College, and Collins joined her more than two years later in February of 1994 after undergoing a rigorous vetting process. He would then meet his daughter for the first time.
For Collins, his story’s message is aimed at everyone as he wants people to know the process.
“I try to tell people the real story, the truth behind resettlement, the truth behind the refugee, because you can listen to the misinformation, but that’s all you get,” he said. “But you’re hearing it from the horses’s mouth. I lived it and I’m always willing to tell the truth.”
He added that his story is not unique because many other people have gone through similar situations.
Collins works for the Montana Department of Public Health & Human Services. He completed 14 years with the Army Reserve and eight years with the Navy Reserve with some time on active duty.
The mayoral chapter of Collins’ life began when his son told him it was time to run for office. Collins listened and, after winning the 2017 election, was sworn in as Helena’s mayor in January.
“I really didn’t think it was going to be this busy,” Collins said. “I am having fun, but it’s busy. You have to listen to the people, you have to listen to their concerns, and you have to find the best way possible to work on those concerns.”
As part of his communication with the public, Collins hosts “Wednesdays with Wilmot,” which are described as laid-back sharing sessions. The events are held on the first Wednesday of every month. The next session is August 1 at LaPa Grill at 32 West 6th Avenue beginning at 6 p.m.
Reporting by Natalie McAlpine for MTN News