The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Flathead Reservation and Lake County in northwest Montana serve the communities on the reservation’s 1.317 million acres, home to the Confederated Salish and Kootenai Tribes and the communities of Polson and Ronan. It’s a region of stunning vistas, lakes and snow-capped mountains. Herds of bison, elk, buffalo, deer and bighorn sheep graze in refuge areas, while cherry orchards and seed potato fields provide key crops. This is an isolated, sparsely populated place, and when the state of Montana shut down in mid-March to prevent the spread of COVID-19, the thousands of families in the area were left with few choices of how to get food. As it has in so many areas of daily life in the community, the Boys & Girls Clubs stepped in.
In a location that already struggles with food insecurity, Aric Cooksley, the club director, says they had to move fast. “When the governor said he was closing all schools, it was effective the next day. We took the 16th, a Monday, to figure out what we were going to do.”
Massive meal mobilization
The club started by doing grab-and-go dinners the following day, averaging 115 to 120 meals a night and using the Ronan unit as a pickup point. Seeing the need to increase volume quickly, Cooksley and his team began activating a network of tribal departments, churches and community development organizations. “We started expanding to three towns,” Cooksley says. “We jumped to 150 meals a night and the week after that, we went beyond 600 meals.” For the majority of the weeks between March 17 and June 5, when the state’s shelter-in-place order was lifted, the Boys & Girls Clubs delivered an incredible average of 1000 meals a day via as many as 30 pickup locations and delivery.
“Ronan is at the center of the reservation,” Cooksley explains. “We had meals going to communities that were 30, 40 miles south or north, 60 miles west. The vast majority of people we were taking them to weren’t in a situation where they could come and get them.”
Cooksley credits a powerful group of more than 100 volunteers and a spirit of community cooperation with the feat of ramping up their feeding operation quickly to produce so many healthy, made-from-scratch meals. “We couldn’t have done this on our own. The coolest thing that came out of it all is that our community stepped up to say, ‘We have people in need. What can we do?’ Churches of many denominations, groups who didn’t always see eye to eye, tribal entities and non-tribal entities—all these groups said ‘We’re in,’ and they were in for the whole two and a half months.”
A history of service
The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Flathead Reservation and Lake County continues to provide more than meals during this time. Started 21 years ago, the Clubs began a feeding program in 2015, similar to a school program. The goal then was simple: “Get more food into kids’ bellies,” Cooksley explains. The new club in Ronan opened about 18 months ago and includes a youth center, teen center and a state-of-the-art kitchen, with a new gym under construction. In Polson, the Club is working with a grant from Southface’s GoodUse program to help build a brand-new building, which will also have a fully equipped kitchen.
Though the case numbers in the area were not initially high, five through the spring, but now over 80, in a community with cross-family ties that are decades old, the losses felt from COVID deaths are deep and long-lasting. “When someone dies, it has ripple effects all the way across the reservation,” Cooksley says.
With much of the area’s population below 80% of the state’s average household income, the ripple effects felt from the area’s job losses and the decline in tourism could be severe. Now more than ever, Cooksley says, having the new club in Polson, and the expansion of the gymnasium in Ronan to provide additional space to serve more kids safely, is vital to the clubs’ ability to provide services in a community that is experiencing greater need than ever.
Club in a Van
Until the community’s children can return to the clubs, the innovative staff found a way to help provide the fun and community connection they offer area children under normal circumstances. The Flathead Reservation and Lake County units are bringing the club to families with their Club in a Van program.
“We send a van with staff, food and activities, going to different communities around the reservation to get kids engaged, active and enjoying doing something other than what the last couple of months have looked like,” Cooksley explains. And their work is more important than ever. During this strange, pandemic summer, the club’s services are truly the only possibility for interaction and food that many area families have.
With the pandemic’s duration uncertain, the clubs aren’t sure yet what the volume of need will continue to be. “We need to be able to serve in new ways during the school year—whatever will that look like,” Cooksley says. “We’re just going to have to see how it goes and respond accordingly.”
The Boys & Girls Clubs of the Flathead Reservation and Lake County is a participant of Southface’s GoodUse program, which supports nonprofits around the country by lowering operational costs through resource efficiency. Your donation helps organizations like this one extend their mission by saving critical funds they can invest back into their community.