Tabitha Conklin, 5, managed a polite, bashful “thank you” before finding a quiet corner to dig through her new bag of goodies.
The little girl was one of more than a dozen youngsters staying at the Montana Rescue Mission’s Women’s and Family Shelter who on Wednesday received backpacks filled with blankets, books, stuffed animals and other comfort items at the first public event in a yearlong partnership between the shelter and the Junior League of Billings.
“It gives us an opportunity to be continually doing things for the shelter,” said Junior League member Haley Vannatta. “A lot of us have kids. We can relate to some of the worries of the people here.”
A trio of women — Vannatta, Aimee Brown and Maggie Vralsted — were at the shelter Wednesday handing out the bags and left more in the main office for kids who weren’t around. Brown said most of the items in the bags were donated by women in the group.
“This is so kids can have the same opportunities that our own kids have,” she said.
The Junior League of Billings is an all-female organization that promotes volunteerism and community development. Earlier this year, members decided they would like to dedicate some of their efforts and found that the majority wanted to focus on women and children.
After working out a partnership with the shelter, they realized that their efforts could be put to use for more than one event.
“Just knowing that there are so many different needs, we thought it might be better to see if we could do this for the whole year,” Brown said.
Last month, the group held a towel drive for the shelter. Wednesday, the women dropped off and handed out the backpacks, and next month they will hold an adopt-a-mom event for Mother’s Day, where members provide gift certificates to local businesses for moms at the shelter.
In June, the Junior League will hold another drive to gather new swimsuits and towels for kids at the shelter, and members hope to provide them with passes to local attractions in the summer. They will gather school supplies in the fall and, in the winter, work with families to create crafts and treats to be given around the community.
“The relationship with groups like this with us is extremely important to what we do,” said Patti Yonts, the mission’s community relations coordinator. “The support of the community is very much needed here because we can’t do it all on our own.”
There are 70 to 90 people staying at the shelter each day. The Women’s and Family Shelter provides food, shelter, clothing and other services to women and families who are homeless.
While support at the shelter is a welcome sight for families and administrators, many of the kids Wednesday were just excited about their gifts.
“It’s really cool,” gushed 9-year-old Sarah Carlson as she dug through her new bag. “I really like the stuff in here.”