On Jan. 11, Montana State University senior Eric Halverson set off from his house at 3 p.m., with no money or food with the intention of simply staying warm and fed through the night.
Halverson shared his reflections on that day Wednesday at the annual meeting of the Greater Gallatin United Way.
As a United Way intern creating a community resource guide, Halverson wanted to learn more about the programs he’d be listing.
He got around on free Streamline buses, and the first stop was the Open Arms Drop-In Center, where he stayed warm “until I knew I could have a free meal across town at the Community Café.”
At the Warming Center, Halverson’s stereotypes were shattered when he saw people working on their computers or talking on cellphones. He was “crushed” in three games of chess by an older man he called “Paul.”
The experience made him feel simultaneously helpless and grateful.
“On a night when my time spent outdoors has been spent hopping around just to keep sensation in my toes, I feel proud to live in a community that has decided to keep Paul warm through the night,” he said.
Based in Bozeman, the Greater Gallatin United Way runs several childhood development programs and provides funding to nonprofits across southwest Montana.
Mike Halligan, of Washington Corporations, told the crowd there’s no better investment than early childhood development.
Though the Dennis and Phyllis Washington Foundation, the company’s philanthropic arm, provides higher-education scholarships for 500 people, it isn’t enough, Halligan said.
Eighty-five percent of brain development happens in the first five years of life, he said.
“Scholarships are fine, but after-school programs are where it’s at,” Halligan added.
Studies show that early childhood programs lead to higher test scores, higher rates of graduation, employment and home ownership, he said. They also decrease crime, social services use, teen parenthood, child abuse and drug and alcohol abuse.
An educated, healthy workforce is a strong and productive one, Halligan said.
“This isn’t a touchy-feely social issue,” he said. “It’s an economic development issue.”
And Greater Gallatin United Way’s kidsLINK “rose to the top” of a short list of early childhood programs in Montana, he said. It’s the reason the foundation presented the nonprofit with a $45,000 check Wednesday.
Attendees also heard a letter from a grateful parent whose son attends kidsLINK, the Greater Gallatin United Way’s after school program.
Before the recession, the father thought United Way had “some interesting commercials during NFL football games,” but he never thought he’d need their help, former United Way board member John Parkes read from the letter.
“I was never going to need help from the United Way, because I was college educated with a great job, nice home and happy family,” the man wrote. “I was living the dream. Then, in 2008, the economy went south and my dream quickly turned into a nightmare.”
After enrolling his son in kidsLINK — which he knew he couldn’t afford — the family was offered a scholarship in a note included in yet another unpaid bill.
In thanks, the father said he plans to get off the scholarship list and pay for another child to attend the program.
“You provided me with so much more than a scholarship,” he wrote. “You provided me with hope.”
Jodi Hausen can be reached at email@example.com or 582-2630. Follow her on Twitter @JodiHausen.