‘Tis the Season for Giving

Coats for Kids, Montana Children’s Wonderland and Toys for Tots among local programs that give to kids in need

By Myers Reece
The Flathead County Sheriff's Posse was one of the partners to help Coats for Kids organize its Nov. 16 event that handed out warm winter wear to 525 kids. Photo by Aundrea Marie Photography

Coats for Kids

Tiffany Suhr started helping out her parents at Coats for Kids when she was 8 years old. Upon turning 18, she joined Jaycees, then the organization overseeing the program. She’s now been the Coats for Kids director for 19 years.

“Most of my life I’ve been involved in this program,” she said last week.

Under Suhr’s watch, Coats for Kids has steadily grown and has been its own independent nonprofit, unaffiliated with Jaycees, since 2009. This year, it launched a new website and corporate sponsorship program, which was showcased at a Nov. 16 event that handed out coats and other warm winter wear to 525 kids in need.

Coats for Kids partnered with the Flathead County Sheriff’s Posse, Pepsi, Keller Williams Realty, Kalispell Toyota, Kalispell Ford, Kalispell Volkswagen and Gunner’s Light Foundation to organize the “Warm up the Flathead” event. Members of the sheriff’s posse cooked 630 hot dogs and Pepsi donated 600 beverages.

Corporate sponsors’ commitments are five years long. Kalispell Toyota, Ford and Volkswagen all pledged 400 boots each year for five years, Pepsi pledged 400 pairs of gloves and Keller Williams Realty pledged to help 400 kids with socks for five years.

Those children joined the 121 already helped through the organization’s regular donation program, which worked with local schools to identify student recipients and distribute the clothing. Suhr said when children have the warm clothes they need, they are more likely to attend school and feel confident while there.

“If they don’t have coats and it’s snowy outside, and everybody else has a coat, their self-esteem is damaged,” she said. “Our schools go the extra mile for their children. It’s very heartwarming. They help us help them, which helps the school as well.”

Now Coats for Kids is preparing to impact the lives of even more local kids in need through its upcoming Dec. 7 shopping day, when dozens of children and their families will “shop” at JCPenney to secure a coat, hat, boots, gloves and socks.

Coats for Kids accepts financial donations to purchase winter wear at any time and is taking applications from families for the Dec. 7 shopping day. The organization is also still seeking corporate sponsors for coats and hats.

For more information, visit www.coatsforkidsmt.org.

Montana Children’s Wonderland

While working at St. Luke’s Children Hospital in Boise, Amy Rohyans Stewart started a program called Santa’s Toy Box that offered gifts to children who were hospitalized around and during Christmas. Now she’s bringing it to Montana Children’s Medical Center, where she is the child-life coordinator.

“I’ve just had the most amazing experiences with this,” Rohyans Stewart said. “It’s my all-time favorite thing that we do all year long. It’s just magical.”

Families with an inpatient child in a hospital over the holidays may not have the time, resources or emotional bandwidth to provide a Christmas experience. That’s where Montana Children’s Wonderland will step in, offering a room full of donated gifts — a free “shopping center” — from which parents can make selections to give to their children and all of their siblings from Dec. 21 through Christmas day.

Rohyans Stewart takes special care in arranging the hospital shopping center. She loves the moment when parents open the door and see a meticulously curated shopping experience. The selected gifts will be wrapped and presented to the kids however parents wish, in an effort to offer the sense of wonder and surprise that Christmas should have.

“We realize that having a child in the hospital at any point is really stressful,” Rohyans Stewart said. “However, having a child in the hospital during the holidays is massively impactful. We want to work with the families to provide the most magical time that we can in these unfortunate circumstances.”

Montana Children’s is seeking local businesses to host donation boxes. Beginning Dec. 3, it will also accept new unwrapped toys or other gifts at its lobby. Then there will be a Dec. 19 toy drop-off event at the pediatric center from 5 to 8 p.m., with an option for a drive-through drop-off in front of the facility.

“We’re really trying to drive everyone to this toy drop-off day,” said Carly Rickard, chief development officer with Montana Children’s.

For more information and to see a gift wish list, visit www.montanachildrens.org/toys.

Toys for Tots

Last year, Re’ Richards volunteered to assist families with securing their toys through the Toys for Tots program.

“That’s how I got hooked,” Richards said.

This year, she’s the campaign coordinator for the local Toys for Tots, which in 2018 distributed 12,234 toys to 1,200 children. The Flathead program is part of the nationwide Toys for Tots, run by the U.S. Marine Corps Reserve. Richards is a former Marine and said many of the local program volunteers are part of the Flathead Marines.

Thanks to a trust that funds staffing costs, as well as a volunteer structure that minimizes operational expenses, 97.2 percent of donated funds go toward toys, books and gifts for kids, “which makes us a stellar campaign to contribute to,” Richards said.

“I think it’s the most unbelievable charity in town,” she said.

Toys for Tots also accepts donated new toys at 73 locations around Flathead County, listed on its website, and will have a truck at the Dec. 7 Christmas parade that accepts donated toys. Richards has had to turn down 20 requests to host a toy drop-off.

“I can’t collect that many — all I have is one pickup truck and one person,” she said. “The county is so big, and we have so many people that want to help.”

Toys for Tots is holding its third round of applications for families interested in receiving toys on Dec. 2-4 from 9 a.m. to 12 p.m. and 1 to 4 p.m. at the Salvation Army church and community center at 110 Bountiful Dr. in Kalispell. That’s also where Dec. 19-20 gift distribution will take place.

There will also be a televised toy drop-off campaign at Montana Ace locations around the state on Dec. 6, including at the Kalispell location at 130 N. Meridian Rd. from 9 to 11 a.m.

For more information, including a list of drop-off locations, visit www.columbia-falls-mt.toysfortots.org.

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