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Children in El Salvador

Provision International, a nonprofit ministry, helps feed children like these youngsters in El Salvador.

Lance Lanning is as surprised as anyone that former President George W. Bush agreed to serve as the keynote speaker at a fundraising dinner for Provision International.

Bush will speak at the Montana Missions Banquet on May 11 at the MetraPark Expo Center. The event is to raise money for the nonprofit Christian ministry that aids people around the world.

Lanning, who is president of Billings-based Provision International, has been involved in the organization since 2004.

"When I stepped into the leadership role about a year and a half ago, I knew the fundraising part would fall on my shoulders," he said.

One morning during a quiet time of prayer, he felt moved to contact the former president, to see if he might consider speaking at a dinner.

"I wrote him a letter inviting him to Montana to enjoy the splendors of Montana and help us raise money for missions," Lanning said.

He was contacted by Sheldon Bream of the Washington Speakers Bureau who told Lanning that Bush gets thousands of speaking invitations a year and accepts only a fraction of them. But Bream invited Lanning to go through the six-step process, including background checks.

"You have to pass each step to get through to the next step," he said. "We got through it somehow, miraculously."

Last May, as he was driving back from a talk he had given in the Flathead Valley, Lanning got a call. He pulled over and heard Bream on the other end of the line, telling him that the former president had agreed to speak at the dinner.

"I couldn't believe it, I was speechless," he said. "Then the enormity kind of hit. I didn't plan on him saying yes."

But everything has fallen into place, Lanning said, and all the details for the dinner are in place.

About 750 tickets already have been sold. They cost $200 each, or people can buy a table seating eight for $1,500 or one seating 10 for $2,000.

Bush will speak for a half hour and then take part in a question-and-answer session for another half hour. The evening will also include live music and a silent auction, featuring artwork from around the world and other unique items.

Lanning, who is grateful that Bush would come to Billings, is quick to say that the event isn't political. Lanning thought Bush would attract a large crowd, which would benefit the ministry.

"Any time a former president is somewhere, it's a big draw," he said. "And it seemed like he might have a heart for missions, so I thought maybe he'd have a heart for our mission."

Provision has a wide reach, aiding the gypsies of Slovakia, shipping food to the hungry in Haiti and El Salvador and, closer to home, providing portable showers to a ministry in Bend, Ore., that helps homeless teens.

Lanning takes no salary in his role as president. He earns his living traveling to schools around the country as a motivational speaker.

Other than two part-time workers, donations go toward a variety of projects. Money from the dinner will help build an orphanage in Uganda and construct a Hope Center in Slovakia to help outcast gypsies.

It will also help build homes in Central America and help to build a second Freedom Home in Odessa, Ukraine, where rescued sex slaves are cared for.

Provision works in conjunction with missionaries who offer help and healing to teens and young women from Moldova who are kidnapped and forced into prostitution.

Moldova is one of the poorest countries in Europe, Lanning said, and young girls are tricked into thinking they're getting legitimate jobs. Initially, they're hired as waitresses or in textile shops.

"They've got a job for 10 days, a week and then all of a sudden pimps bust in the door, rape these ladies, drug them and take them," he said.

They must turn 20 to 40 tricks a day or risk beatings at the hands of their captors. If somehow the girls are rescued, "they are so damaged inside, I can't even fathom," Lanning said.

He tells of one girl who spent weeks in her bed at Freedom Home, emotionally and physically wounded. The help she received there turned her life around.

"What's so amazing is she just got married last fall to a young Christian man," Lanning said. "I'd pay to give her a chance in life again."

That is what the dinner is all about, he said. Lanning, recently speaking at a local service group's breakfast, said he probably wouldn't pay $200 to hear a well-known speaker or to eat a fancy meal.

"But I would spend it to help get somebody off the street and into our Freedom Home," he said.

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General Assignment and Health Care Reporter

General assignment and healthcare reporter at The Billings Gazette.