While a roomful of elementary-age children worked on art projects in an adjoining room, Gary Drake proudly showed off a new computer lab in the Women's and Family Shelter in downtown Billings.
"This is something we've been dreaming about for a long time," he said.
Drake is development director for the Montana Rescue Mission, which operates the Women's and Family Shelter at 2520 First Ave. N.
On the second floor of the shelter, Sue Runkle, School District 2's homeless services coordinator, has long had a small teaching space. Her newly expanded classroom is now part of a four-room Next Steps Learning Center that will serve preschoolers, grade-school children, teenagers and adults.
The latest piece of the project is the computer lab, funded by the Martin Family Foundation. Mission director Perry Roberts said the bugs are still being worked out of the new computer network, but it will be up and running soon.
The four rooms include a class for preschoolers, Runkle's class for schoolchildren, the new computer lab and a conference room with a teaching kitchen.
The total cost of the remodeling came to between $50,000 and $60,000, Drake said, with much of the demolition and cleanup performed by clients of the Men's Mission.
Some of the grant funding, from several sources, came from the frugal use of earlier grants, which resulted in leftover funds.
Drake said, "The foundations like to hear, 'We haven't spent all of our money. Can we spend it on something else?'"
The family shelter has been operating in the old Lincoln Hotel since 1991. Drake said they have always wanted to provide more than just food and shelter.
"The whole idea was to have kind of a comprehensive educational component to what we're doing," he said.
The computer lab will be especially useful for GED classes, and for helping clients improve their own computer skills. Drake said there will also be classes in creating resumes, interviewing for jobs and filling out applications.
Other classes will be added as volunteer instructors come forward with specific skills. Some of the instructors will be coming from a couple doors down from the shelter.
Jill Riley is the leader of Navigate Church, which has an art gallery and sometimes holds services above the Don Luis Restaurant, which is just south of the shelter on North 26th Street.
Riley, who has a master's in education in addition to her pastoral degree, is already teaching a weekly Bible study class at the shelter, and her church helps out with the shelter's Project Hope fundraisers.
She said she has been working with Ramona Bruckner, the education coordinator at the women's shelter, to make use of other Navigate Church members to teach classes in the learning center and computer lab.
Riley said she intentionally chose to be just off Montana Avenue because it seems to be the place in Billings where the haves and have-nots are most likely to come into contact with one another, what she called "the most natural intersection of those communities."
Helping with education at the women's shelter is exactly the kind of project she envisioned when she started the church, Riley said.
She said Navigate Church will be able to provide instructors who can just be in the computer lab to help students learn computer skills and things like creating a resume.
She also wants to provide teachers who can help shelter residents earn their GEDs. Such classes are already available at the Lincoln Center through School District 2, Riley said, but people can't bring their children there. At the shelter, children can be learning in their adjoining rooms while their parents work on their GEDs.
The church also has people with management backgrounds who can teach more advanced job skills, Riley said.
The long-term goal is to expand with the shelter's education program so that the church is considered almost an annex of the shelter. If need be, she said, the church could even offer classes in its space above the restaurant.
Drake said the relationship with Navigate Church is an example of the kind of relationship the mission has always had with the community.
"One of the things we've found is, just about any resource you need, Billings has it," Drake said.