A Free Gift Store for Veterans

American Legion Auxiliary’s annual Christmas program provides presents for residents of Montana Veterans’ Home and their families

By Myers Reece
Denise Holm helps George Lederer, a resident at the Montana Veterans' Home in Columbia Falls, select holiday gifts on Dec. 7. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

The American Legion Auxiliary’s local volunteers who run an annual Christmas gift program are tasked with a mission: provide presents for not only all 100-plus residents at the Montana Veterans’ Home in Columbia Falls but also their families.

Mission accomplished every year.

“It’s a wonderful thing they do for our residents here,” said Bonnie Stutsman, recreation supervisor at the veterans’ home. “It’s very cool.”

The American Legion Auxiliary (ALA), “the world’s largest women’s patriotic service organization” and an affiliate of the American Legion, has been serving, helping and meeting the needs of the country’s veterans, military members and their families since its founding in 1919.

The organization has thousands of local volunteer-powered units nationwide. Among its numerous programs and efforts is an annual Christmas gift store program, which started in 1928 as a way to provide presents for hospitalized veterans and their families.

In Montana, ALA units across the state donate gifts and money to purchase gifts, which are distributed at the Montana Veterans’ Home in Columbia Falls, a veterans’ nursing home in Miles City and the VA Medical Center in Fort Harrison.

Every resident at the Montana Veterans’ Home can choose gifts for themselves and family members. Kalispell Unit 137 and Columbia Falls Unit 72 provide the manpower for the program, with volunteers handing out and wrapping presents at a gift store set up for two days at the facility, held this year on Dec. 7 and 8.

Darlene Johnson, president of the Kalispell chapter of the American Legion Auxiliary, wraps a gift for a resident at the Montana Veterans’ Home in Columbia Falls on Dec. 7. Justin Franz | Flathead Beacon

Jeanna Sibbert, secretary treasurer of Unit 137, helped organize the effort with Cassandra Thommen, membership chair for Unit 72. Sibbert said roughly 20 volunteers chipped in this year.

The day before the store opened, veterans’ home staff led by field director Juanita Hallas reviewed the accumulated gifts, identified needs and went out to purchase more presents to fill out the roster. The offerings were wide-ranging: clothes, jewelry, toys, small appliances, bath and body products, meat and cheese gifts, and more.

“It’s a huge range of things, and the part they really like is that they can also give to their family: their kids, grandkids,” Sibbert said.

For gifts that couldn’t be retrieved in person or given to family members by the residents, volunteers wrapped and packaged them to be mailed to destinations throughout the U.S. and Canada at no cost to the veterans. At Fort Harrison, the ALA also provides gas cards for those present during gift store hours.

“It really is no cost for our residents,” Stutsman said. “It’s awesome. They do a really nice job.”

The veterans’ home, located near the Flathead River in Columbia Falls, has been providing services to veterans since 1896. The 117-bed facility serves veterans who qualify for skilled/intermediate nursing care or domiciliary self-care living. It also offers a 15-bed Alzheimer’s unit.

Sibbert said local American Legion Auxiliary units also contribute gifts and birthday cakes for monthly birthday celebrations at the veterans’ home throughout the year. For the Christmas gift store, all 107 residents collected gifts, and Sibbert was pleased to give them a little holiday cheer.

“They were very happy,” Sibbert said. “Some of them asked, ‘How much do we owe you?’ We said, ‘You don’t owe us anything. We just want to wish you a merry Christmas.’”

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