Suggestions on How to Give Back

By Beacon Staff

On a Tuesday afternoon at the Flathead Food Bank in Kalispell, two days before Thanksgiving, the power is out but the place is packed and noisy. Children play with toys on the floor in the light coming in from the windows. Volunteers scramble to restock the shelves. And Kalispell residents, who need some help to pull together a holiday meal, keep coming in the door.

Lori Botkin, the Food Bank’s executive director, is frazzled. By the end of the day, she estimates her agency will have distributed some 20,000 pounds of food to 700 local families in need. And then the Food Bank will start over.

“We’re going to try and do it again for Christmas,” she says. Sign-ups for those meals begin this week.

When asked if she has seen an increase in demand from families seeking assistance, Botkin’s answer is succinct: “It’s doubled.” And then she gets back to work.

As the holidays arrive in the Flathead Valley, amid stubbornly high unemployment and a still largely stagnant economy, the season comes at a time when many families need a little cheer, in addition to some help putting a hot meal on the table, much less a present under the tree. Yet the flipside of the economic decline is that most of the local nonprofit agencies that provide aid to those who need it most – unemployed, seniors, disabled – are seeing their funding decline while public demand has skyrocketed.

Sherry Stevens Wulf, executive director of the local United Way, said as demand for services has increased, so to has she seen, “an increase in people calling to see how they can get involved.”

“The holiday season, it really touches people’s hearts,” Stevens Wulf said. “But it’s sort of like, how do we make Christmas last 365 days a year for these people in our community in need? What can we do in January, February?”

With so many different agencies and so many different needs, it can be daunting for the person looking to get involved. That’s why the United Way has once again assembled its “Hope for the Holidays,” publication, which compiles all the contact information, schedule of events and different agencies working on different causes in one, easy-to-reference guide.

The “Hope for the Holidays” guide is available at the United Way and all participating nonprofits, as well as many local churches. Though it’s not yet posted online, Stevens Wulf hopes to have it accessible via the Web by next year. She also recommends calling coordinating agencies (for Christmas it’s the Salvation Army at 406-257-4357) to inform them you’re providing assistance for a certain family, to avoid duplication of services and allow the agencies to focus on the remaining families in need of help.

The guide is intended, not only as an aid for people aiming to donate their time and resources as best they can, but also for the nonprofits to be clear about their specific needs.

Lance Isaak, at the Flathead Youth Home in Kalispell, said his youth shelter has had a steady stream of kids staying there, and an uptick in children referred by the Department of Child and Family Services. Unlike some agencies dealing with an increase in demand for services obviously linked to the tough economy, like the Food Bank, Isaak said children suffer indirectly from the recession as their families grapple with economic hardships.

With a high number of kids passing through, Isaak said the Youth Home is always looking for basic necessities they can offer the children.

“One thing we’re always asking for is new socks and underwear,” he said. “We can give that out throughout the year.”

Gift cards to local shoe stores are always useful, he added, so the staff can take the child out for a new pair of shoes if they need them. Age-appropriate music and movies are also welcome. And monetary donations, which are tax-deductible, are very helpful to the Youth Home, not just during the holiday season, but throughout the year.

What follows are a few highlights and events from the “Hope for the Holidays” publication, but this list is far from comprehensive compared to what’s contained in the guide.

–CASA (Court Appointed Special Advocates) for Kids is seeking the following for children from toddler-age to 18: books, snow boots, snowsuits, sleds and toys. Call 406-755-7208 for more information.

–The Violence Free Crisis Line and Abbie Shelter are providing Christmas dinner and gifts to the women and children served. Their wish list includes: gift cards from box stores, gas stations and beauty shops; paper products, nonperishable food, a sofa, a newspaper subscription, a DTV converter box. Call 406-752-4735 for more information.

–The Humane Society of Northwest Montana seeks volunteers to walk dogs, care for pets and help at the front desk. Call 406-752-7297 for more information.

–The Lamplighter House, a mental health day treatment program, seeks gifts for its clients including the following: hygiene and beauty products, gift cards to box stores, men’s flannel shirts (size XL, XXL), warm gloves, mittens, hats, ear muffs, scarves, T-shirts and sweatshirts (size XL,XXL), pajamas, robes, slippers, socks, fleece blankets, movies (rated G, PG or PG-13), art and craft supplies.