When was the last time you went to bed cold and hungry?
It's a simple question, and one meant not to make you feel guilty but rather to help you put things into perspective. It was a question I asked myself recently; it caught me off guard... and now I can't stop thinking about it.
Over the past year, I have had the privilege to serve as the president of the Rotary Club of Bigfork. I have never actually lived in Bigfork, but somehow during my life here in the valley this inspiring community at the top of Flathead Lake adopted me and I am a better person for it.
Last December, our club organized a Christmas dinner delivery for families around Bigfork. The names of the families in need came mostly from schools and churches. Our little club was challenged to deliver to every family on the list—over 40 dinners. Personally, I was caught up in the planning and logistics of the dinners and lost sight of exactly what the mission was. And so, on a cold Saturday morning at 6 a.m. at the Bigfork Fire Hall I had my head down making sure each dinner box had enough of this or that. When I left to deliver the meals to the three families assigned to me, they were merely names on a list... but soon became so much more.
I struggled to find the first home, which was an outbuilding next to a few homes about 200 yards from where we hold our weekly Rotary Club meetings. When I arrived just after 7 a.m., it was still dark out and the family at the home was awake and waiting for me. This box, this delivery put me face to face with a young couple who appeared broken and restored. When they opened their door I was transported back to a time in my own childhood when my mom, sister, brother, and I lived in a motel.
My next delivery was outside of Bigfork. My notes read that the family had seven or so members. Pulling into the drive, I wondered how seven people could be living in such a small house. Again, when I arrived I noticed that the mother was awake and waiting for me. As I walked up onto the porch she opened the door and a girl not more than seven years old stood clinging to her leg. "I have more," I said as I handed her one box and turned back to my car to retrieve another. As I returned with the second box of food I heard the little girl ask, "Mommy, is there any milk in there?"
It's mid-March as I write this note for our spring edition. It is 4:15 a.m. as I sit here typing—tears streaming down my face as I remember that morning and that little girl and that question that haunts me for so many reasons. My kids are asleep in their room, surrounded by things. The heater set just to the right temperature to maximize their dreams. When they awake in a few hours they will stand at our cupboard and choose from the many things we have to eat for breakfast.
Thousands of kids here in the Flathead are like mine. But I have learned that there are hundreds of children who are asking the same question that little girl did on that cold December morning.
"Mommy, is there any milk in there?"
Not long after that day, my wife and I took a break while visiting family over Christmas. There again, surrounded by stuff, I was inspired by this little girl to investigate just how many kids in our valley are asking the same question. As the New Year rolled around, my wife and I began to wade through the countless requests to donate to this cause or that. All of them are good causes and things our valley needs, but none of which go to help children with the most basic need of all—food.
To be completely honest with you, the past three years have been hard on my wife and me from a business standpoint. And how can a charity look at Flathead Living and our slick pages and amazing restaurants and businesses and not think, "I bet they've got some money to give?" But the reality is our business is not immune to this recession and it has been a real fight to keep the publication alive. The reality is that we, like many Montanans, have had to work multiple jobs and run multiple businesses just to try to stay afloat while the nation recovers. I'm sure there are hundreds of people who are shocked to hear me say that.
An even harder reality is that I have since learned that there are literally hundreds of kids in the Flathead Valley who are homeless and hungry. And despite what you hear about the "recovering economy" on the news, the numbers of families migrating from middle class to below poverty level income is rising every day here in the Flathead.
Our government considers any household earning less than $22,000 annually to be living in poverty. More and more families are having to move in with friends or relatives or seek motels or—in the worst cases—cars and other means for shelter. Nationwide it is estimated that 25% of children under the age of 17 are homeless or living in poverty.
According to the Census and Economic Information Center (Montana Department of Commerce), 5,715 of 30,998 households in the Flathead earned less than $20,000 in 2009. An additional 1,862 households reported earning between $20,000 and $24,999—which means that in the Flathead Valley roughly 30% of children are living in poverty. Many kids are dropping out of school so they can go to work and help support their families. Add to that the rising cost of fuel, and the number of food-insecure homes is increasing rapidly.
Numbers and statistics don't tell the real story, so let me tell you what we've learned. In the local grade schools there are currently hundreds of children on assisted meals programs. But what happens when the school bell rings? What happens when Friday comes? Moreover, what happens when summer rolls around—these assisted lunch programs don't follow kids home. Even in areas that offer summer food programs, many parents don't know about them or the challenge of getting kids to these programs without money for gas to drive them there becomes a barrier.
So what does all this mean? Well, speaking for my wife and me we like many American's awoke one morning to find ourselves at the end of the proverbial rope that we spent a lifetime weaving. But we feel that we cannot ignore the need and that together we can work with the other businesses and leadership of northwestern Montana to help these struggling kids.
I am concerned with treating the cause rather than the symptoms, and that's why I serve on the board and as an investor in Montana West Economic Development. People, without new jobs in all sectors including manufacturing, we will not be able to sustain the economy on tourism and real estate alone. This is a long-range solution that takes time to build, but it doesn't feed the need today.
There are dozens of nonprofit organizations in the Flathead Valley designated to help families in areas of food and shelter, but their resources have been maxed out. Local churches and food banks are excellent conduits toward identifying and helping families and people in need. On a civic level there are Rotary Clubs in Kalispell, Whitefish, Columbia Falls, Evergreen, Bigfork, Libby, and Polson.
We at Flathead Living have decided to focus our giving and resources toward meeting the needs of the homeless and hungry children of the Flathead. We have founded the "Clays for Kids" charity event, which will benefit existing organizations including Rotary International, Habitat for Humanity, and the Montana Food Bank Network, leveraging the relationships of those businesses and leadership of the community to start to tackle this growing problem.
We are in the early planning stages of this charity event which will take place in July. Already we have had several businesses and individuals express interest and support for this sporting clays event to benefit interconnected causes.
Friends, I don't know that one event is the ultimate answer. I only know there is a growing need and we have to start somewhere.
- Clint Walker