BRIDGER — When the 205 students attending Bridger Public Schools lean into a service project, the entire community — even people as far away as Billings — benefit.
A good part of the community even showed up to help the students better serve the community.
Students in grades K-12 spent three hours away from their classrooms Wednesday afternoon doing everything from providing food for classmates in need, sewing blankets and collecting stuffed animals that police and sheriff’s deputies present to children involved in a car crash or as the victims of a domestic dispute. They even crafted non-skid socks for residents of a Billings nursing home and 154 braided toys for dogs at the Beartooth Humane Alliance in Red Lodge.
On Friday, students made each other’s day by delivering flowers and treats to one another. The Valentine’s Day proceeds went in part to feed hungry students. The students raised more than $400 for the Bridger Food Bank and about $1,600 through Valentine's Day sales.
Wednesday’s first-ever Scout Service Day — named after the school mascot — was “chaotic and wonderful,” said Vicki Kaufman, who teaches family and consumer science at Bridger High School and helped organize the day of service. “We had a lot of community members who also helped. It was just amazing.”
“Everyone just got together, and everyone was having fun,” said Austin Rysavy, president of the school’s chapter of the Family, Career and Community Leaders of America. “Nobody was doing nothing, and people from the community came to help. It was great having the senior citizens here.”
Kayla Cummings, who leads the school’s Jobs for Montana Graduates chapter, spent her service day writing valentines for seniors and members of the military, as well as making socks for seniors. The senior student said she plans to become an elementary teacher “because I like to be an influence on people, just like we were on Wednesday.”
The day of service “made me realize just how much kids like to get involved,” said Kelsee Belshaw, FCCLA vice president. She got herself involved, in part, by teaching younger students some basic yoga moves.
Kaufman said she saw younger students’ eyes “get big as they worked with the older students. It was neat to see high school kids sit down and work with little kids.”
Some of the students’ efforts benefited Cole’s Pantry, a food provider named for a Bridger second-grader, Cole Pelican, who was killed in a 2009 horse accident in his home. Each weekend Bridger students send food home — in bags they sew from T-shirts — to 36 of their fellow students in 14 families. Only a school secretary knows the recipients’ identities. She quietly slips the bags into the students’ backpacks before they go home Friday afternoon.
“There’s not a penny of school or government money spent” on the weekly food bags, Kaufman said. “It is kids taking care of kids.”
Cole’s Western Wishes, a foundation begun by Pelican’s family after his death, granted Bridger Public Schools $10,000 to spread Cole’s Pantry around the state. Kaufman said Bridger schools are using part of the money to help launch outreach programs in Shepherd and at West Elementary School in Laurel, and are working with schools in Colstrip and Glasgow to get the programs going in their schools.
Bridger Police Chief Mike Buechler, who also coaches the boys basketball team at Bridger High School, said his department was grateful for students’ donation of stuffed animals and the blankets they sewed.
“We were getting kind of low on that stuff,” he said, adding that they bring comfort to children experiencing an emergency. “We just put the word out, and Ms. Kaufman jumps on it.”
Third-grade teacher Michaela Witt said she got a good response when she asked her 16 students what purpose they were fulfilling with all their work.
“They said they were helping people and helping the community, and that they were doing it for free,” she said with a smile. “We talked about what it takes to be a volunteer, and they all agreed it’s helping people without expecting any payment. That absolutely made us all feel good.”