Giving a Gift to Students in Need
by katie jones backer
When you drive down Grand Avenue, you can’t miss the historic home of the Senior High Broncs. Built in 1937, Billings Senior is the oldest high school in town (besides the Lincoln Center). But, beyond its history, old school brick, Wendy’s Field/Daylis Stadium, and unique interior art, the building is also brimming with vibrance and joy. You'll find a caring staff and positive energy filling the Senior High halls, and the compassion shown, especially around the holidays, is worth shining a light on.
The only Title high school in town, and with a student body surpassing 1,900 students, Senior has the largest homeless and At-Risk population. The students who may be living on the streets, in their cars, or couch surfing, deal with unimaginable stress—especially during a Montana winter. School is their safe place. And yet, despite the attentive, proactive, and empathetic staff there are still many needs that go unmet. The numbers of At-Risk students are continually fluctuating, and students’ circumstances can change overnight.
Furthermore, while school is a great place for the students to come, there are many hours left in the day when they cannot be in the building. What happens to them then? What will they eat for dinner? Where will they sleep?
Nine years ago, a parent decided more help was needed for these young people and approached the Senior High admin to present the Gift Card Drive idea. At the time, Tumbleweed Runaway Program (having an office in Senior) and the Senior High Associate Principal Shelli Strouf teamed up to create this program of gifting various gift cards to students in need. Eventually, it grew into a self-sustaining fundraiser independent from Tumbleweed.
With many returning volunteers and donors, this program now assists approximately 150-200 students each December! Before the holidays, School District #2 Homeless Liaison will share the names of students who could benefit from these gifts with Shelli. Parents, teachers, and community referrals also help her gather her final list of recipients. Then, donors can drop off gift cards, and they are distributed before Christmas break, based upon student needs. “The kids are so grateful. I wish everyone could see their faces and the impact they have on our students… this wouldn’t be possible without the outstanding Billings community,” Shelli said.
Kids get everything from fast food gift cards to help fill in meals to Target, Wal-Mart, Kohls, Ross, and other box store gift cards to help with clothing, toiletries, or cosmetics. Others receive VISA gift cards or money to help them with gas or rent. Since the Billings community is so generous, enough annual donations come in, usually allowing Shelli to stretch them out for students in desperate situations. As she pointed out, "The need isn't just at Christmas." Donations are welcome yearlong, and Shelli puts them to good use.
One student, who was homeless, struggled to find his own place. "It was heartbreaking," Shelli shared, "but thankfully, we were able to use money to help get him started with his rent and food [from leftover Gift Card Drive donations]. He was so grateful. This is why we do it.”
Shelli shared another story about how she found out a student was living in a basement without heat. So she bought him a heater with donation money, improving his living situation immensely. These are just two out of hundreds of stories from over the years.
While Shelli and the Senior High community know that a small gift card won’t fix all of an At-Risk teen's problems, it certainly helps them at the moment, letting them know that they're not alone. That they’re seen, and that someone cares about their welfare and wants to help.
If you’re interested in giving this holiday season, you can send gift cards or checks to Senior High or drop them off at the Main Office. "Think typical kid stuff, places near the school such as the fast-food places or coffee shops on Grand Avenue, or big box stores where kids can find whatever they need, whether it’s food, clothes, socks, winter coats, headphones, cosmetics, and so on,” Shelli explained.
Truly, no amount is too small, for as Mother Teresa said, “It’s not how much we give but how much love we put into giving.”
There are kids right now who could really benefit from our help. So, let’s do it, Billings. Give a gift card today… "tis the season," after all.
To learn more about Senior High’s Gift Card Drive, call Shelli at (406) 281-5412 or visit:
And if you'd like to take your giving/support one step further, check out Tumbleweed, "A program which provides safety, assistance and hope to our community's vulnerable and homeless youth, creating lasting life changes."
And one last thing, remember many Billings' schools host fundraisers this time of year, from food and coat drives to Toys for Tots. Inquire at your child's school to see the ways to help give back this holiday season.
Katie Jones Backer
Katie Jones Backer “retired” from teaching High School History to adopt her daughter and pursue her dream of writing. She is the author of the Nav’Aria series (kjbacker.com). She has a passion for travel, history, writing, fitness, helping others, and most of all, her husband, daughter, pomeranians, chihuahua, and tortoise!