Determined to have a meaningful birthday this year, 9-year-old Ellesse Porco of Red Lodge asked her party guests to bring presents not for her, but for the homeless of Billings.
Then Ellesse and her sister, Maylie, decided they could also do without Christmas gifts, and that meant $200 more to be spent on wool socks given to homeless people Thursday during a party at the HUB.
To cap off their efforts, the Porco sisters and the party guests created handmade cards for HUB party-goers. One had a drawing of a smiling turtle with the Earth on its back and the message: “All aboard!”
Above a drawing of a horse, another child advises, “When all is lost, gallop on!”
Then there was this wisdom from a Red Lodge child: “Have you seen the snowflakes? You might not think they or you are important. But you are important, and unique, and I love you for who you are.”
“Those cards made us cry,” said Carmen Gonzalez, PATH team leader at the Mental Health Center’s HUB. “They were healing and non-judgmental. Those children are educating the rest of us because they can live without boundaries.”
“Writing those cards was powerful,” said Kat Porco, the girls’ mother. “What they say is there is someone out there who sees you as a person, not someone wandering the streets.”
Maylie, who is 11 and has cystic fibrosis, was especially caught up in creating the cards, her mother said.
“She knows how you can become identified with something, because she’s ‘Maylie with cystic fibrosis,’ and it is defining,” Kat Porco said. “Her cards tell people they are unique and have something to give the world. She knows it’s easy to get wrapped up in being something instead of being someone.”
Remembering those lost
During a brief candlelight vigil on the Courthouse Lawn on Thursday, Billings residents honored the 13 people who died during 2017 while living with homelessness. The frosty vigil occurs during the shortest day — just before the longest night — of the year.
Keynoter John Felton, chief executive officer of RiverStone Health, said the people being honored have been “duly categorized” — homeless, street people, squatters, addicts, alcoholics, drug abusers, the mentally ill and even criminals.
“It might be easier to dehumanize these folks with labels instead of names,” he said, “but the easy thing and the right thing are not always the same thing.”
“Let’s help someone just because we can and they need some help,” Felton told the crowd of more than 75 people. “Let’s give people the benefit of the doubt … I honestly believe that it really is just that easy.”
“This short day reminds us how short life is,” said the Rev. Glenn Fournier of Montana Rescue Mission during a prayer to open the vigil. “All of us have a lot of means. Soften our hearts,” he implored the Almighty, “to the plight of others.”
When the vigil was over, people made their way to the HUB for a party and the distribution of the kits assembled by the Red Lodge children.
Russ Limberhand was remembering his mother, Ginger Littlebird, a homeless woman who died Oct. 6. Now her son, who’s 20, stays most nights at Tumbleweed. He and his siblings are seeking jobs, he said, but so far have found only temporary work.
Russ turned 20 on Dec. 7. On that day, he said, he missed his mother acutely.
“On our birthday, she’d go all out and decorate,” he said. “I picture her in my head like that, and the sadness hits me.”
A helping community
Those who attended the vigil donated gifts of warmth — hats, scarves, gloves and blankets among them.
“It was a nice message to hear, when you see someone in need, be a good neighbor and step up,” said Jeanie Mentikov, a RiverStone Health physician assistant.
She said most of the homeless people she works with aren’t homeless by choice, but are victims of circumstances.
“It’s wonderful to see this kind of support from the community,” she said.
“Everyone in here is an incredibly awesome person,” Gonzalez said at the HUB before the party began. “Your car didn’t start this morning? That’s nothing compared to them.”
The HUB serves about 600 people every three months, she said, and people are worried that announced and rumored state and federal cutbacks that will trim anti-poverty efforts could result in even more deaths in 2018.
“These aren’t deadbeat dads or drunk Indians. They’re people who died — and not because the community didn’t try to help them,” she said. “They all died waiting for an answer to the question, ‘Where is the hope?’ ”
During her blessing at the vigil, Gonzalez lamented “the darkness around us. I want to look at the positive, not the drama of the trauma,” she said. “These people died not when they left this Earth, but the day they had their trauma. Thank God there are good people in this community who help.”