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Reaching Homeless Youth One Gift At A Time

Sometimes they're on the streets.
Sometimes they live out of a car.

Other time's it's motel rooms,
shelters, or sheds.

As of Dec. 15, Billings School District 2 identified 385 homeless youth. They are the kids Operation Billings Child aim to serve.

"Our goal was to reach about 350 shoeboxes and gift bags which is what we ask the community to donate," said Penny Ronning, Founder of Operation Billings Child.

"And we ask them to get a shoebox or gift bag and wrap it and fill it with suggested gift items," said Ronning.

It's her fourth year organizing and collecting gifts for homeless youth to enjoy during the season of giving.

Credit (Courtesy of Penny Ronning)
Operation Billings Child Founder, Penny Ronning, says there's an empowering sense of esteem youth experience when they receive a gift that was delicately wrapped for them -- it symbolizes worthiness of time and affection

"This is the first year we haven't met our goal," said Ronning. "I think it was a hard transition for people from an election on November 8th to just immediately start thinking about Christmas and the Holidays."

Even though Operation Billings Child hasn't yet met their 350 shoebox goal, they have seen a large influx in cash donations; they're remaining optimistic.

The crux Operation Billings Child hinges on is education.

"The longer a homeless child stays in school, the greater the opportunity that poverty cycle ends," said Ronning.

The homeless youth receive gifts through the education system, from one of their teachers.

Credit (Courtesy of Penny Ronning)
Billings School District 2 Homeless Youth Liason, Sue Runkle, coordinates with Penny Ronning of Operation Billings Child to ensure homeless youth do not go without a gift over the holiday season.

"It's important that we stay anonymous, that the connection for that child when that gift is handed to that child by an educator, that child is thinking, 'School is good,'" said Ronning.

"And whatever circumstances may be for that child, they will remember school is a very good thing and that connection is strong enough for that child to want to continue on with education."

For the last 16 years, Sue Runkle has served Billings School District 2 as the Homeless Youth Liason. She works with Ronning to distribute gifts to kids over the holidays.

She says homeless youth are largely invisible.

"If you walked into a classroom you would not be able to pick them out. They're regular kids, they just don't have a place they can call home," said Runkle.

She says that in general, kids may not even look forward to their winter break.

"Because school means there's some stability, there's a routine," said Runkle. "You get two meals a day. When school break happens, there's not necessarily any of that going on, they may not have a stable place to stay."

I know firsthand.
I was homeless in my youth.

When I was seventeen years old, bouncing between the couches of relatives and friends, school was the one consistent thread pulling me together through confusion, fear, and change.

And my teachers were my heroes, champions for me to excel and succeed,
gifting me books and gift cards to go out to eat.

During the holiday season, those presents meant I was recognized,
worthy of being seen.

"There’s such a sense of value that is placed in something beautiful," said Ronning.

"The emotional self-esteem that is imprinted or impacted when a child receives a beautifully wrapped gift --
It’s about the imprint that the community can help make on a homeless child, and the value that a child can feel when that gift is wrapped and handed off, just for them."

The thing about community is a large body of people can coordinate small gestures that ensure nobody is forgotten or invisible.

Hand in hand, one delicately wrapped shoebox at a time.

Credit (Courtesy of Penny Ronning)

Operation Billings Child will continue to collect shoeboxes after the holidays.

"Because if we find out that maybe a student comes back and they didn't get anything, we can say, 'You know what, it got left here!' And we can still give it to the kids, they can still feel good about it," said Runkle.

To find out what you could fill a shoebox with, visit Operation Billings Child's website.

You can reach YPR news anchor & producer Brie Ripley at (406) 657-2972
Or you can send her an e-mail: