Friday, June 29, 2012

Summer School!

Summer in the Flathead Valley… a magical time of the year when we forget that February exists and there is still enough daylight to read a good book outside until well after 9 o’clock at night. When I was a kid we had this incredible toy called ‘the outdoors.’ The internet was nonexistent and I played around my neighborhood until the streetlights came on and I knew my freedom was suspended until the next day. I think kids still enjoy summer if you can convince them there is life beyond handheld electronic devices. In spite of wireless distraction and social media madness, summer retains an important place in the lives of most children.

There are times, however, when summer has a different connotation. Many children in America fear the summer because they go hungry more often than during the school year, when free and reduced meals are provided for some children. Waking up in the middle of July can be a thousand times more frightening than facing any math test in October.

•In 2010, 16.4 million or approximately 22 percent of children in the U.S. lived in poverty.

•During the 2010 federal fiscal year, 20.6 million low-income children received free or reduced-price meals through the National School Lunch Program. Unfortunately, just 2.3 million of these same income-eligible children participated in the Summer Food Service Program that same year.

As I was driving to work a few days ago I noticed some of our local elementary schools are providing daily free meals at certain times. This is an incredible example of how a community can take care of its people in times where assistance is needed. The Summer Food Service Program is as follows:

Woodland Park June 11-August 24
Elrod Elementary June 18-August 24
Russell Elementary July 9- August 24

Monday –Friday
Breakfast 7:30 till 9 am
Lunch 11 am till 1 pm

Meals will be served to anyone 18 years old and younger. No proof of income, registration, or ID is required. (No meals will be served on July 4th)

Tuesday, June 26, 2012


I was in a dead sleep when the thunder boomed early this morning. My original, half-sleep deprived thoughts led me in two directions: Either all my fears stemming from Red Dawn were coming true or I was trapped in a Garth Brooks video. The former was preferable to the later.

But, after I gained enough consciousness to realize the interruption to my slumber was nothing more than a thunder storm, I began to drift back to dreamland because I still had another hour before my alarm was poised to ruin my day. The rain was falling against the window and a rhythmic pattern of drops on the glass was ushering me back to a wonderful place when a rogue thought somehow pushed its way to the front of the line and wouldn't allow me to rewrite the Steelers-Packers Super Bowl from a couple years ago.

Thunder = Rain = Everything gets wet.

Now, this is not rocket science, and normally the weather is not chief amongst my daily thoughts. I only really notice it when it refuses to accommodate me or causes some level of inconvenience. But these instances are rare and the last time I was truly angry at the rain gods was when I went camping and was forced to set up the site while the skies opened around me and decided I needed to build some character. And, in spite of my annoyed demeanor, in the scope of human history this ranked right between 'insignificant' and 'are you seriously going to complain about this.' It's all a matter of perspective and getting wet was not that big a deal because I simply hopped back in the car and waited the storm out.

But this morning, at god-awful o'clock, another thought hit me: what happens if a person can't elude the rain and all their possessions get soaked. Many of our residents come to Samaritan House directly from living outside and this is not a hypothetical for them. I see a rain cloud on the horizon and I enjoy its deep shades and hues of purple and gray. A homeless person sees the same cloud and sees potential for catching a cold or having all their belongings drenched, which leads to mildew, which leads to illness. It's not an 'apples and oranges' situation...its more like apples and rotten apples.

So, my appeal is that some of you would consider donating rain gear or ponchos that we can hand out. Rain coats and boots are always in demand and plastic sheets or tarps work well and we can distribute them to people who don't have the luxury of camping in the rain. Rather, they are faced with the reality of living in it.

Thursday, June 21, 2012

The Cook Books are Done!

Have you ever been involved in a conversation but you have no idea what the other person is talking about?

Until 6 months ago, I knew absolutely nothing about cook books. I couldn't be bothered to care about teaspoons and portion sizes or how many types of salt there are (trust me, there are too many!). But then something changed and we decided to compile and publish a cook book with the intent of providing some excellent recipes and raising awareness about homelessness in the Flathead Valley. And now... nearly half a year later, I feel I know way too much about saute pans and caloric intake. But, it was for a good cause!

I am pleased to present the finished product, Come To Our Table. Hundreds of hours went into this fundraising project and it is now ready for sale and mass consumption from the general public. A chef once told me that a cookbook was worth it's weight in gold if one decent recipe was able to be gleaned from the pages. I am happy to announce the entries in our book have been been submitted by some of the finest restaurants and chefs in the valley. There are also numerous contributions from other organizations, churches, and individual community members.

The cost is $20 dollars and proceeds go to Samaritan House. Please purchase one if you are interested in great food and a great cause. They can be picked up at the Samaritan House shelter office at 124 9th Ave West in Kalispell, or you can call 257-5801 for more information.

Thanks to everyone who helped shape this idea into a tangible, tasty reality!

Wednesday, June 20, 2012

Dignity in a Chair.

     Dignity can be defined as something reflective or indicative of self respect. We often associate it with positions of prominence and people of importance and for some reason it always makes me think of old guys in top hats or women in frilly dresses that went extinct in the mid 20th century. It's an ideal we aspire to reach and a standard by which we hold others. Even if we have trouble putting our finger on what it looks like, we think we know it when we see it.

     But what happens when our ideas are more confining than they are liberating? It would be easy to write an article that criticizes people for wrongly casting judgement on others based on appearance. It's easy to climb on a soapbox and lambaste others for being judgmental, which we are entitled to do because we are (obviously) right in our dispersions even though we are attacking others by doing the exact same thing we are upset at them for doing. This is not an article about that.

     As a human, the only thing more devastating than allowing others to rob us of our dignity is when we forbid ourselves the opportunity to see ourselves in a dignified light. This happens when we construct a faulty ideal of what composes dignity based on the untruth of what dignity isn't. In other words, we let other people decide what is and isn't dignified and we contour our own values to accommodate them rather than stay true to what we believe. Dignity is lost before it was ever found because there is no standard of self respect.

    One of the services we provided at this year's Project Homeless Connect was a station dedicated to dental work and teeth cleaning. We also were fortunate to have another group of volunteers set up a beauty salon to dole out hair cuts and stylings by the headful. The intent was to allow the participants the opportunity to have some work done that will help them feel a bit better about themselves. If a person has limited financial resources, wants and needs become acutely divided and the needs trump the wants. Clean teeth and a decent haircut are staples for most of the modern world but these things can be expensive if you are on a tight budget.

     I spoke with many of the participants and volunteers at PHC about these stations and most people had the same conclusion: these were important because they helped instill a sense of confidence in those receiving them. For a few minutes, each recipient was on par with every other person in the Valley no matter where they lived or worked. The playing filed was level.

     Now, I know a teeth cleaning and a haircut is not the road map to universal dignity. If dignity is a condition fostered from within and not dependent upon the perception of others, then these things might at least lay some groundwork. If a person thinks of them self as less than equal, then there is little room for confidence which can lead to a loss of dignity. It doesn't matter what others think because the individual refuses to allow them self to feel anything. Our hope was to hold up a mirror for some people to look into and be amazed by the beauty that stared back at them. So many people had forgotten what it felt like to not be embarrassed and that they had an outer beauty that matched the greatness on the inside.

     Dignity is easier to attain when a person can at least look them self in the eyes.

Monday, June 18, 2012

Gone to the Dogs

This is the 6th time I have tried to start this article. My first two attempts involved some gibberish that was not nearly as clever as I thought it would be once I saw it written out. A couple tries incorporated statistics and fell flatter than a Nebraska highway. No one wants to see percentages on a Monday. I was really struggling with what to write about so I decided to forgo a hook and some catchy phrasing and simply delve into the topic.

One of the primary services we offered at Project Homeless Connect was directed at pets. Many people from the community approached me before the event and wanted to know why we had space dedicated to grooming and spay and neutering. After all, shouldn’t we focus our time and energy toward people? On the surface, it seemed like a fair question. Our hope was that PHC would help people living in the midst of trying circumstances, so what do animals have to do with anything?

I spoke with several people who had turned down shelter because the place they visited could not accommodate their pets. Initially, I thought I was mishearing people. Perhaps the message was getting lost in translation. You turned down a place to sleep because they wouldn’t allow you to bring your dog? This did not compute with my line of thinking. A person would actually refuse shelter simply because they could not bring along their pet? Seriously? I kept waiting to see if that guy from “What Would You do?” was sneaking up on me.

The best way for me to wrap my mind around this was to visit where the animals were being serviced. After talking with quite a few pet owners (some still homeless) my disposition changed and I remembered what it felt like to have a pet. These animals were more than property or carry-on luggage. Many aspects of a homeless person’s life are chaotic. Circumstances can change and new environments present themselves on a daily basis. A pet often provides an anchor that allows an element of comfort and consistency. No matter how a person’s life would change, their pet was with them as an extended member of their family.

I was looking at the situation backwards. These people needed their animals because they were more than important, they were essential. The shared experiences and bonds transcended flea collars and afternoon walks. These pets provided sanity in a world of unrest and perpetual white noise. To abandon the animals just for shelter was unfathomable because it seemed inhumane. Many people cannot relate to this but if you have had a pet in your life it makes sense. Could you simply turn your back on an animal that was part of your life in the most trying of situations? Why should the homeless be any different?

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Dear John (Project Homeless Connect part 2)

The veteran sifted through a room's worth of tables, looking at a hodgepodge of assorted items that had been collected and distributed evenly throughout the area. Volunteers were scattered about assisting anyone who asked for help. Many of the vets smiled graciously and kept to themselves. One gentleman named *John was particularly deliberate as he surveyed the contents of the room... all incredible items that could be found in the finest military surplus store. He had only collected a few things but was methodical in his selection process. After twenty minutes he was finished. A coat and a pair of boots were his only spoil and he thanked the service providers and quietly left the room. His exit matched his entrance; unassuming and dignified.

One of the greatest things about PHC is that people can leave with items they didn't arrive with and there is no dispersion of guilt or patronization. Different people have various levels of need so there is no real template for how much a person might gather while they are participating in the event. I was struck by the (minimal) amount of John's collection. He could have doubled his haul but left with a scant amount compared to others. I was curious.

Later in the afternoon I was having lunch and spoke with one of the volunteers over a bowl of chili (which is always the best way to talk to anyone) and he mentioned how the day had impacted him. Even though I am a lousy poker player, I kept my emotions in check and remain stoic as he told me about a particular veteran who toured the room for the vets but refused to take more than couple things. His reasoning, the volunteer told me, was that he was worried someone else might need them more. I knew he was referring to John but kept silent on the matter. I returned to my duties after I ate but the day was never the same. The idea that one person in need would elevate his fellow citizens above his own interest was truly humbling and I hope I changed a little that day.

It's pointless to talk when there are absolutely no words to convey how you feel.

*Not his real name.

Friday, June 8, 2012

The First Words...First Impressions (Project Homeless Connect)

I usually have no idea which direction these blogs will flow. A thought sometimes resides somewhere in my mind’s cobwebs and I attempt to explain my perspective on a situation that happens to orbit my frontal lobe long enough to catch on. The previous 48 hours have been a blur for me even though they were a reality for more than 500 people who ventured out to the Project Homeless Connect event held at our administration center on Thursday and Friday. I am a novice at this; a rookie who anticipated a fastball but was thrown a slider. I have worked with non profits for more than 10 years in some form or fashion and learned the more I think I understand, the reality is that I’m often mistaken because people are not statistics chained to a clipboard or entombed in demographic patterns. Project Homeless Connect was another opportunity to expose some light on a situation facing all of us.

Want or need? The discrepancies between these two ideas are more hotly contested than numerous arguments… Beatles or Stones, Yankees/ Sox, John Locke versus Jack Sheppard… there is a fine and well respected precedent for any decent argument: there must be contention and a possible remedy. The clients who came to PHC battle social stigmas every day. Stereotypes are easy to apply because they absolve us from intimacy. When we are able to make a generalization it allows us the freedom to remain subjective on an impersonal level. A widowed mother and her 6 year old become ‘those people,’ and a homeless veteran is a member of ‘they.’ It is not exclusively a ‘want or need’ that we sought to provide. It was both.

You can learn so much by just looking into the eyes of another person. Words aren’t necessary for communication and sometimes they mislead us and manipulate the purest of situations. Entire stories are told in a glance. Plans and schemes can be hatched while heartbreak and hope teeter behind the pupil and long to be freed without the clumsy mismanagement of vowels and syllables. I looked into a lot of eyes over the past two days and each one told a separate tale. Pride and embarrassment mingled with wishful anonymity and brazen outrage. There is a need in this valley that transcends communal partisanship and social indifference.

So, what was accomplished during PHC? Hundreds of people received council and direction from numerous social service providers who united under a single banner and laid ideology aside for a few days. Mental and physical needs were addressed and hot meals were served. Volunteers graciously assisted the clients through the mazelike apparatus constructing our setup. But at the end of the event…after we switched off the lights and bolted the doors…what was really accomplished?

Badly used analogies irritate me more than my neighbors at midnight on the 4th of July. They are tacky and lazy ways to piggyback off the creative work of others. So here goes: There is a Mumford and Sons song with the following lines: Now darkness is a harsh term, don’t you think? And yet it dominates the things I see. This sums up my thoughts quite well and I hate that I am now plagiarizing British bands.

Please don’t mistake what I am saying. I believe PHC was successful because it allowed us to provide some tangible needs to amazing people. People were treated with dignity and hopefully doors were opened that will enable many to move from various levels of victimization to empowerment. Data was gathered to help address the current level of needs and perhaps stymie future issues. But this event was not the conclusion of anything. The landscape is still dominated by a system that ensnares people and marginalizes them into oblivion. The harsh reality is that most of our PHC clients left the event with some great resources while everyone else left with a life much less unencumbered.

Consider doing me a favor. Most of the time I wonder who even reads this blog, so I would like to hear from you. If you were a client or received services, or if you volunteered or were a provider… or even if you just have secondhand information from a reliable source who was at PHC… tell me about it. Email me at  (there is a tricky underscore in there, so be careful!) and tell me your story. It doesn’t have to be long or elaborate or polished. But I want to believe that the Flathead Valley cares as much as I hope it does. I will have some other articles dealing with various aspects of PHC up soon but I wanted this to be the beginning of a larger narrative.

It would be so great to hear from you.