Danielle Limberhand of Billings attended Tuesday’s Community Connect event with her niece, Abby Pettit, and Abby’s 1-year-old son, Jacy, because her mother told her to.
“My mother said you can get a lot of beautiful things,” Limberhand said, gazing across a makeshift store brimming with items — all free of charge — displayed in the basement of the Al Bedoo Shrine Auditorium. “It’s a pretty nice way to get a lot of stuff and meet some nice people.”
Both of those were easy to find at the ninth annual event, where 57 service providers staffed booths and dozens of volunteers took people around, one by one, to speak with agency representatives and then find what they needed at the store. Also served up free was lunch, a massage, bicycle repair, child care — and even a booth where those so inclined could grab a paintbrush and help create a box mural.
The mural “will be filled up by the end of the day,” said Karen Grosz, offering passers-by a paintbrush and a cardboard palette to paint on artfully arranged stacked boxes. “After a while, I won’t even have to say anything. I’ll just hand them a paintbrush, and they’ll know what to do.”
This year’s Community Connect — an effort to link service providers with people who need both services and consumer goods, including hygiene kits, homemade quilts, clothing and shoes — featured a new wrinkle, said Lynda Woods, the city’s Community Development program coordinator.
As people came in, they were paired with a volunteer who would stay with them for as long as they liked while visiting the various booths.
“It’s about developing relationships,” she said of the pairing. “It can be a little intimidating to be in a new situation.”
A veteran of each of the eight previous Community Connect events, Lottie Williams of Billings was distributing handmade quilts and donated pillows as well as a unique combination courtesy of Albertsons — hygiene kits placed in a ski hat and tied up with a ribbon.
The collection of clothing and shoes ready to be placed in eager hands Tuesday was as vast as she’s seen through the years.
“People are grateful. They tell you they are glad you’re doing it,” Williams said, adding that she’s very particular about the quality of the merchandise being given away at the store. “I ask myself, ‘Would I wear it? Would I pay for it?’ Everyone needs clean, nice stuff.”
Those staffing the 57 booths upstairs used a variety of enticements to draw in the crowd, including friendly smiles, bowls of candy and useful freebies, including hygiene kits, pens and brochures describing their program.
The agencies represented were as varied as the people in attendance.
“Knowing your (HIV) status is empowering, something that everyone should do,” said Steven Hrubes, community outreach coordinator at the Yellowstone AIDS Project. Yellowstone County is home to 170 people confirmed to be HIV positive, he said. “It’s a taboo subject, but it needs to be out there. It’s taking charge of your sexual health.”
Down the row a bit, the Indian Health Board of Billings was also seeking healthy outcomes. Brooke Lewis, a registered nurse, said the group was offering everything from blood pressure checks to mental health referrals — and rides for those who need one.
The full-service medical clinic serves more than 10,000 patients annually and is one of the nation’s largest Indian health clinics.
Kathy Srock, of Sodexo, which works to help feed students in the Billings public schools and Catholic schools as well as students in Lockwood, said the event was valuable both as an outreach to people who might benefit from a free summer lunch in the park program and as a way for her to network with other providers. “With all the new (school lunch) nutrition requirements, kids need to be healthy by eating healthy,” she said. “This is one way to let people know that’s happening.”
Mike Hoggan was more concerned about people’s financial health. The housing counselor for Consumer Credit Counseling Service was talking up a new program, Credit Builders, which lends people $300. As the borrower pays back the loan at $25 per month, the agency helps the client improve his or her credit report and develop a plan to pay off creditors. Paying back even a small loan helps people in financial distress to prove they’re capable of getting their finances in order, he said.
The AmeriCorps VISTA crew working with Woods’ Community Development department helped lay the groundwork for Tuesday’s successful event the month before. On Martin Luther King Jr. Day — the national day of service — the Volunteers in Service to America took to the streets to collect $6,000 worth of goods and cash donated to help make Community Connect possible.
It took about 200 volunteers to serve and guide the crowd Tuesday, which Woods expected to reach 500 by the time the event concluded at 4 p.m.