Rising to the Occasion

Community support has buoyed nonprofits, foundations and service providers amid fundraiser cancellations and increased demand, a trend continuing into the holidays

By Myers Reece
Volunteer Gregg Hill organizes toys at a Toys for Tots warehouse in Kalispell on Dec. 18, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Through the disruptions of COVID-19, the year of giving in 2020 has been inherently strange and necessarily adaptive, but as always driven by neighborly benevolence and compassion.

Many nonprofits and community organizations rely heavily on one or a few major annual fundraisers — galas, feasts, auctions, races — but those were all either canceled or shifted to virtual formats this year. Advocates of numerous causes have been forced to creatively adjust, all while demand for services has skyrocketed.

Government assistance came to the rescue in some cases, but community generosity has provided the steady foundation for resilience. As temperatures drop and Christmas approaches, here’s a selection of organizations striving to maintain that spirit of altruism while making our winter warmer and our new-year horizon brighter.

For the Kids

Last year, the Flathead Valley Toys for Tots distributed toys to 816 kids, its most ever. This year, it has shattered that record, easily surpassing 2,000 as of last week, and counting.

Kelly Hamilton, the toy drive’s coordinator, said the surge in need is driven by COVID-19, and in addition to the overwhelming rate of online applications, her phone has been ringing nonstop.

“Most of what we’re seeing on applications is sudden lack of income, sudden job loss, quarantine — it’s all COVID based,” she said.

Fortunately, donations have poured in to meet the demand, as have volunteers, including a core group of mostly retirees who have been putting in 12-hour days. Toys for Tots had more than 100 drop-off locations but is now only operating its central warehouse and distribution hub at The Party Store.

“Most of the applicants are trying to get caught up on rent and then, boom, here’s Christmas,” she said. “We say go get your bills paid. We’ve got Christmas for you.”

For more information, call Hamilton at (406) 471-9299.

Shoppers pick out Toys for Tots gifts for their kids on Dec. 18, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

The annual toy drive at Montana Children’s medical center is serving a higher number of young hospitalized patients this year, with donations continuing to pile up as of last week. Visit www.montanachildrens.org/toys for more about the “virtual toy box.”

Demand at Coats for Kids has also greatly intensified this winter, distributing warm winter clothes to hundreds more underprivileged kids than usual. The organization can be found at www.coatsforkidsmt.org.

Linchpins of Giving

Following a period of upheaval in recent years, Northwest Montana United Way has found a steady rhythm under new Executive Director Roxanna Parker, including the establishment of a COVID-19 relief fund earlier this year.

Now United Way, a nexus for local nonprofits and charitable giving, is seeking to raise $4.2 million to ensure the long-term sustainability of the Gateway Community Center, an expansive nonprofit campus in Kalispell. The fundraising effort has been buoyed by a $300,000 grant from a Connecticut-based foundation and a $100,000 contribution from a local anonymous donor.

Call United Way at (406) 752-7266 for more information.

The Whitefish Community Foundation (WCF) has continued its evolution as a powerhouse of philanthropy and giving, including the recent announcement that it’s absorbing the assets of Flathead Community Foundation, which disbanded after 15 years.

The WCF manages more than $36 million in assets, and its annual Great Fish Community Challenge has raised millions over the years for nonprofits, including $2.7 million for 56 participating nonprofits this year. The foundation recently announced a $15,000 grant to Three Rivers EMS to help purchase ambulance cardiac monitors.

For more information, visit www.whitefishcommunityfoundation.org.

The sign for the Whitefish Community Foundation. Beacon File Photo

The Community Foundation for a Better Bigfork (www.cfbbigfork.org) and Columbia Falls Foundation (www.columbiafallsfoundation.org) remain active in fundraising and philanthropic endeavors in their respective communities, including the CFBB’s support of an ongoing campaign to build a new library in Bigfork.

The Salvation Army Kalispell Corps adapted to pandemic precautions to serve hundreds of meals and food boxes this year, while launching its holiday “red kettle” fundraising campaign earlier than usual to respond to the impacts of COVID-19.

This year’s “Rescue Christmas” initiative is designed to meet an expected 150% or more increase in local holiday assistance, such as helping to put food on the table, pay bills and buy gifts. Part of that effort is the “Angel Tree” gift program for children.

The fundraising campaign is held virtually this year, and Julie Feist, who is the local corps’ administrator and preacher along with her husband, said a number of community entities — including chambers of commerce, rotary and Kiwanis clubs and the Lions Club — are holding “competitions” to raise funds online. In addition to Christmas, the money goes toward funding The Salvation Army’s array of other services.

“We have a very generous community here in the Flathead, and that has really warmed our hearts,” Feist said.

To contribute, visit www.kalispellredkettle.org or call (406) 257-4357.

Feeding the Community

Early in the pandemic, the sudden onslaught of community members needing food was so intense that local food banks thought they might run out of food. Donations and government support warded off that scary possibility, but demand remained sky high.

Jamie Quinn, director of the Flathead Food Bank (www.flatheadfoodbank.org), said last week the pantry had distributed 3.2 million pounds of food for the year and could reach 3.5 million by year’s end. It normally gives out roughly 1.5 million pounds. Long lines snaking around the block were the scene at both the Thanksgiving and Christmas food distributions this year, with the Christmas distribution held on Dec. 18.

Bobby Yee of the Flathead Food Bank distributes food boxes for Christmas on Dec. 18, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Food pantries in Columbia Falls, Bigfork and Lakeside have been similarly busy this year, as has North Valley Food Bank (www.northvalleyfoodbank.org) in Whitefish, which has been soliciting donations — particularly hams and yams — for its holiday food drive, including mobile pantry distributions beginning Dec. 18 and a drive-through distribution at the main Whitefish location on Dec. 22-23.

A Roof Overhead

The Flathead Warming Center is celebrating two major breakthroughs this month: the opening of its new permanent homeless shelter in Kalispell and the completion of its $750,000 capital campaign. Nearly half the funds — $360,000 — raised by the capital campaign came from Whitefish philanthropist Mike Goguen.

Upon launching in 2019, the organization operated its low-barrier emergency shelter out of Christ Church Episcopal Church before moving to Faith Lutheran Church this winter. Its new permanent facility, which can shelter up to 40 individuals per night, is located at 889 N. Meridian Rd. and officially opened on Monday.

“It’s always a race to beat inclement weather and when we do find a host facility, our operations displace their regular programming,” Tonya Horn, the center’s executive director, said. “Having a home of our own will allow us to open by the first frost and stay open until spring thaw.”

For more information, visit www.flatheadwarmingcenter.org.

The Samaritan House, a homeless shelter and transitional housing provider, has reported elevated demand through the pandemic and relied on community support in different forms with the cancellation of its major fundraisers. Visit www.samaritanhousemt.com.

A Ray of Hope (www.arayofhopemontana.com) also operates a local shelter, while the Sparrow’s Nest of Northwest Montana (www.sparrowsnestnwmt.org) and HEART Program (www.kalispellheartprogram.org) provide services for local homeless youth.

The Abbie Shelter, a domestic violence service provider, responded to increased danger levels of violence due to the pandemic this year and was able to hire an extra staff member thanks to grant funding from the WCF. The Abbie Shelter (www.abbieshelter.org) garnered more than $100,000 in donations during the Great Fish Challenge.

Casey Driscoll hangs clothes at the HEART Locker “store” in Kalispell, where students in need can receive clothing, school supplies and other essentials at no cost on Nov. 18, 2020. Hunter D’Antuono | Flathead Beacon

Dollars for Scholars

ImagineIF Libraries has evolved over the years into a community center, offering kids’ activities, educational workshops and more, and it once again proved its adaptability by unveiling an array of virtual programs after the pandemic closed its high-traffic doors in the spring.

But COVID-19 did disrupt fundraising efforts, including a capital campaign to raise $1.6 million to purchase, renovate and equip a new 6,000-square-foot library in Bigfork behind Bethany Lutheran Church. Even as the proposed opening date has been pushed back to 2022, the library announced last week it had raised $520,000 as of Dec. 18, marking the end of the first phase of fundraising campaign.

The second phase of the campaign will focus on pledges with a goal to reach $1.1 million by next fall, and it received a boost this month with significant gifts from Glacier Bank, Park Side Credit Union and First Interstate Bank.

Visit www.imagineiflibraryfoundation.org for more information.

mreece@flatheadbeacon.com

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