Family Service volunteers

Volunteers from Eide Bailly form a human chain to move bags of food at Family Service in Billings on Thursday, Nov. 21, 2019. The volunteers packed 800 bags of Thanksgiving food, which was given to families earlier this week.

After years of planning and fundraising, Family Service finally moved into to its newly remodeled location on First Avenue South with more than three times the space of its old address. Almost immediately, requests for food and other aid increased 100%.

“We have double the number of people that come in for services. We didn’t have time to gradually grow into it,” Stacey Brown, executive director, told The Gazette last week. In cramped old quarters, fewer people could be served. In the new building (a remodeled beer distribution warehouse and offices), both the layout and Family Service policies have changed to make giving help more efficient and getting help more dignified and less time consuming.

Now client intake is available 9-3:30 every weekday and Family Service is fielding 65 to 70 requests a day.

“We didn’t realize how many people were told to come back another day and didn’t,” said Jane McCracken, Family Service development director. People who needed to get to work often didn't have time to wait. Now most people can be served in an hour. One major change is giving clients their choice of groceries. Instead of waiting for staff to pack a food box, clients now choose their own food in a bright, well organized area.

Stabilizing families

The food distributed includes donations from local supermarkets as well as food ordered from Montana Food Bank Network and food donated by local individuals and food drives. The “client choice” area is set up like a grocery story with racks of baked goods, tables of fresh produces, coolers of milk and freezers holding meet. Canned foods are organized on other shelves. Each shopper gets a list of how many of each type of item they may choose. Then a staff member or volunteer helps pack the groceries in boxes to take home.

Family Service is a private, nonprofit Billings organization. It receives food items from the federal government for the senior nutrition program and the Temporary Food Assistance Program.

Family Service reports distributing more than 2.1 million pounds of food to 8,636 households and 24 other organizations in the past year. Fifty-one percent of all clients are elderly, 41% are in working families and 14% of households include a person with disabilities.

“We try to provide healthy food,” Brown said. “We ask people to use SNAP first, but some seniors only get $15 in SNAP.” Monthly commodities are provided to about 700 seniors through a federal program. Those folks also may receive a food box they fill in the client choice area.

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“We view food as the fastest way we can stabilize a family,” McCracken said. “For us, food equals stability, so they have options for self sufficiency.” By providing $250 to $500 a month in groceries, Family Service allows the family to cover rent and utilities with their limited income.

Requests for rent and utility assistance also are rising, but not the grants that Family Service uses to provide that help.

Thrift store

The Family Service thrift store is more than double the size it was in its former location. Donors now can drop off their good, used items at the Family Service drive through. Donors may stay in their vehicles and staff will unload donations and furnish a receipt.

The public is welcome to shop at the Family Service thrift store, which generates 15% of the origination's annual cash needs. The thrift store is stocked with donated housewares, collectibles, furniture and a 50 cent clothing section. Those in need who cannot afford 50 cents may receive vouchers to select what they need at no cost.

Family Service has 17 full time staff, four part time employees and countless volunteers.

“You never have enough volunteers,” Brown said.

If you haven't visited Family Service at its 3927 First Ave. S. location yet, check out the thrift store soon. Make room at your house by donating good, used items before the holidays. Consider donating your time or making a cash contribution to this organization that helps so many local families avoid homelessness.

Check the Empty Stockings section of the Thanksgiving Day Gazette for specific ideas on helping Family Service through the holidays. Check the box below for more suggestions.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.