A cross section of the Billings population united at ZooMontana for a portrait and a statement of solidarity against discrimination.
The Billings chapter of Not in Our Town and Westpark Village Senior Living Community teamed up to offer a free day at the zoo for folks to come together and celebrate community while spreading awareness of their cause. Westpark Village sponsored the event and up to 500 people could enjoy free admission between 1 and 4 p.m.
Marty Ortiz, chair of NIOT Billings’ board of directors, said the anti-hate group began in Billings 20 years ago in response to a number of hate crimes in the city.
“Billings can be a reactive community but we do have an active membership, maybe not as active as (when the group formed) but we’re really trying to create an awareness on there’s still hatred and intolerance out there,” Ortiz said.
The I Am Billings photo has been taken annually for a half-dozen years but this was the first at ZooMontana. By the time the portrait was taken, about 250 people entered the zoo with the NIOT wristbands. Many of the people traveled to the event to show support for the organization, but a lot of zoo goers were surprised with free admission and chose to join in on the community portrait.
George Schmalz took his 6-year-old son and 3-year-old daughter to ZooMontana to see the animals but he was happy to show support for NIOT too.
“I’m married to a Korean, and we have Korean-American children,” Schmalz said. “There was some concern from my wife as the kids start school.”
But Schmalz said he’s been to several other countries and witnessed severe intolerance. In Billings he knows discrimination exists but it’s not something his family has to deal with every day.
“I think it’s important to keep an awareness because I’m opposed to discrimination of any kind,” Schmalz said.