"Santa Paws" holds Penny, Harley and Odie at a recent fundraiser for Billings Animal Rescue Kare. Penny and Harley are rescues adopted through BARK, one of Billings' nonprofit organizations that rely on local volunteers and donations.

Today's Opinion pages continue The Gazette's longstanding tradition of featuring letters of thanks at Christmas. All the letters in this special, expanded Opinion section were submitted by nonprofit organizations and helping agencies that serve people in our region of Montana and Wyoming. We present these expressions of gratitude to remind readers of the tremendous work nonprofits do to make life better all year long.

On this Christmas Eve, which is also the third night of Hanukkah, we call attention to the good news all around us. The Gazette's annual Empty Stockings printed this year on Thanksgiving Day told readers about dozens of opportunities to help neighbors in need. The response to Empty Stockings is wonderful for the seniors, children, parents and folks with disabilities who receive the gifts. It's also wonderful for the generous givers.

St. Vincent de Paul

Christmas gifts were "stacked almost to the ceiling" at St. Vincent de Paul's charity office on First Avenue South, Executive Director Craig Barthel said last week.  "Billings is such a generous community."

Cash donations also have increased since Thanksgiving for the charity that has seen rising demand for help with rent, utilities and other basic needs since early this year. St. Vincent de Paul staff and more than 50 volunteers led by the Sisters of Charity of Leavenworth were preparing last week to serve Christmas brunch to more than 100 homeless and low income folks on Dec. 21.

At Big Sky Senior Services on Lake Elmo Drive, Executive Director Denise Armstrong reports that more than 300 seniors received gifts this Christmas thanks to the community's generosity. As Armstrong was on the phone with The Gazette, a man who had already donated many gifts walked in with another bag of goodies for seniors.

Employee groups from local businesses volunteered to wrap and deliver all the gifts last week, Armstrong said. Some of the seniors asked the volunteers to stay while they opened the gift. Often, those delivery volunteers were the only people that senior saw all day.

Big Sky Senior Services

Additional volunteers delivered food boxes with groceries provided by Family Service. Most Big Sky Senior Services clients are on the lower side of the income scale.

"The community has been very gracious, coming forward to help our seniors," Armstong said. "And the calls we get, the seniors are so grateful for everything, the gifts, the volunteers, the outpouring of love."

"It just really helps people get into the Christmas spirit," Armstrong said, noting that some delivery volunteers arrive dressed in bright holiday apparel. "It just makes everyone feel very good."

Most of us tend to remember the bad news more vividly than the good news stories, so on Christmas Eve, let's remember some of the heartwarming news published in The Gazette recently:

  • When word got out that the HUB drop-in center for homeless and mentally ill adults didn't have the food or funds to provide its traditional Thanksgiving dinner, local union members quickly organized to help out. Members from nearly a dozen unions, including Teamsters Local 190, IBEW Local 532, LiUNA and Plumber & Pipefitters Union Local 30 raised nearly $3,000 and got Sysco involved to add to the pantry and deliver the food. Thanks to the union members and Sysco, the HUB served its traditional turkey feast to everyone who stopped by the downtown center for a good midday meal on the day before Thanksgiving.
  • More than 150 motorcyclists braved the cold streets of Billings on Dec. 8 for the Roaddogs annual Christmas toy run. The number of cyclists was lower than usual because of the forecast for ice, snow and wind that soon made travel treacherous, but the toy collection for needy children was reported to be the biggest ever. The cyclists donated an estimated $80,000 worth of toys.
  • Volunteers at Billings Senior, West and Skyview high schools held gift card drives to help homeless students through the holidays. As of early December, the Billings school district had identified 313 students as homeless since the school year began, according to Sue Runkle, the district's homeless student liaison. 
  • Rocky Mountain College and Montana State University Billings teamed up with their alumni associations to raise $1,100 and collect 1,350 pounds of nonperishable food for Family Service, a local nonprofit that helps struggling households avoid homelessness.

The Hanukkah Festival of Lights started on Sunday evening and will be celebrated for eight nights, ending on Dec. 30. The giving of gifts is a traditional part of the Hannukkah holiday tradition as it is with Christmas. While families enjoy exchanging gifts, we recognize all who give and receive gifts of hope during this holiday season.

The organizations highlighted in letters on these Opinion pages give hope all year long to their community. We salute them, their volunteers, staff and donors. We wish everyone happy Hanukkah, merry Christmas and a healthy new year.

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Opinion Editor

Opinion editor for The Billings Gazette.