From clean clothes to bras for women, Sara Stout is making a difference in the lives of the homeless in Billings.
As a member of the AmeriCorps VISTA program (Volunteers in Service to America), Stout has been working since July at the Hub on North 27th Street, where she has organized two successful projects — one to raise money for new washers and dryers and another to provide bras for homeless women.
The Mental Health Center’s drop-in day center helps homeless men and women connect with health care, housing and job services.
Stout, a 24-year-old from Pensacola, Fla., is one of a dozen VISTA workers from across the country who are in Billings working to alleviate poverty and homelessness.
Brenda Beckett, the city’s community development manager, said this year’s volunteers are the largest VISTA contingent the city has had. The service value from each member working on an issue is estimated at $30,000, she said.
The VISTA workers are from Florida, North Carolina, Ohio, Wisconsin, Illinois, Minnesota, New York, Virginia, Connecticut and Michigan. VISTA members are working for the city of Billings and other programs including Billings Salvation Army, United Way of Yellowstone County, Healthy Montana Kids and Montana Credit Unions for Community Development.
VISTA workers, all college graduates, receive a small monthly stipend for a year of service. When their service is complete, workers qualify for a post-service stipend or a payment they can use for student loans or graduate school.
Growing up in a Navy family that was “big into community service,” Stout put in 500 hours of community service in high school and was a resident assistant in college, where she majored in U.S. history. She also worked on President Barack Obama’s election campaign.
“My generation needs to get out there,” Stout said.
Stout wanted to work for VISTA and applied for a opening in Billings, the only Western location among her 10 applications. Stout had never been to Montana or the West.
Stout and Hub Director Joe Chalupa clicked in a telephone interview when they found they both like to “color outside the lines.”
In a needs assessment at the Hub, Stout said it was “pretty apparent” that women needed bras and that the center’s washers and dryers were shot.
Stout called last fall’s bra drive “Support the HUB: Lift. Separate. Donate.” Bras, she said, were an overlooked necessity.
Stout worked with the Nursing School at Montana State University Billings and TLC Lingerie, 1402 Broadwater Ave., to organize a bra collection drive last October in conjunction with a women’s health group.
Stout’s goal was to collect 150 bras. At 2,300 bras and counting, the drive far exceeded its goal, she said.
TLC taught Stout how to fit women for bras and gave bras to women who needed larger sizes, she said.
“The women were so grateful. It’s such an unmet need in the community,” Stout said.
Chalupa also pitched in. “I now know how to size and organize bras,” he said.
“He’s our bra man,” Stout joked. “I’m the bra woman.”
Stout’s second project is to replace the two residential washers and two dryers with new commercial-grade appliances. Hub clients sign up to do their laundry for free and the machines run constantly.
The Spin Cycle project is raising money through donations by riders in a 10.5-mile informational bicycle tour of places around the city where homeless people live and sleep.
Billings Police Officer Shane Winden, a downtown bicycle officer, led a tour last September.
Stout is planning another Spin Cycle for next month and hopes to raise about $2,000 for the new machines.
“I would like to see that happen before I leave,” she said.
The Hub also has seen its roster of community volunteers skyrocket under Stout. Chalupa said Stout has increased the number of Hub volunteers from “maybe five” to more than five dozen through a revamped application form.
Her Hub experience, Stout said, has taught her a valuable lesson.
“I can really make a difference by sitting and talking with people,” she said.
Homeless people have faced challenging circumstances in their lives, Stout said, and “you can’t pass judgment.”
Impressed by the friendliness of Montanans, Stout wants to stay in Billings after her VISTA work is finished.
“It’s been a good run,” she said.