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Community partners, donors and dozens of volunteers were ready by mid-day Saturday to serve an anticipated 1,000 or more people during the second People’s Community Outreach event at North Park.

Give-aways included backpacks loaded with school supplies, sacks of pet food, hundreds of clothing items from which to choose — and, dispelling a common canard, a free lunch.

“Last year we had such a good turnout. We didn’t know what to expect,” said the event’s chairperson, Brenda Bonogofsky. “This day is about loving on people, letting them know we care about what’s happening to them.”

A popular stop Saturday was the clothing giveaway, where volunteer Cheryl Grenz said families experiencing financial challenges were searching for, among other items,school clothes for their children.

“The donations have been amazing this year,” she said, including the free use of two storage units “which allowed us to sort clothing and get ready for today.”

Donors apparently had an eye toward the future. At the start of Saturday’s event, Grenz had five circular racks of winter coats ready for anyone who needed one.

Nearly a dozen social service organizations had a presence at the faith-based event. Carlee Thompson with Volunteers of America was there to, among her advocacy duties, help veterans navigate the Social Security system.

“Our goal is to end veteran homelessness,” she said.

Dentists donated toothbrushes and toothpaste. A pet food distributor sent over dozens of bags of food, asking only that recipients sign for them and provide some demographic information. “They want to know just what the need is” among the community being served, Bonogofsky said.

But not everything went as planned for event organizers. A hairdresser who’d planned to provide free haircuts had to cancel after she was hospitalized. And Bonogofsky didn’t collect the several hundred backpacks she’d hoped to distribute Saturday. Instead, volunteers distributed about 100 backpacks.

In addition to giving away goods, service providers said they were eager to dispense information, too.

Stefani Torno, a mental health worker with the Community Crisis Center, said one of her goals for the event was to let more people know “there’s help for people who need a chemical evaluation.” Many people consider the center a shelter, she said, but with only 18 beds, “it’s not so much a shelter, because they stay only 23 hours” before possibly being readmitted.

Bonogofsky said she was happy that a number of churches did their part to serve what is often an under-served community. Some churches provided filled backpacks, while others sent volunteers, tables and chairs and food items.

“People are happy for the help, and we’re happy to give it to them,” she said.

Plans are already in the works for a third annual outreach in 2019.

“We’ll start planning for it right away,” she said with a grin. “But we’ll probably take a week off first.”

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City Government Reporter

City reporter for The Billings Gazette.