What started as a grassroots mission by teachers to serve underprivileged youth in Kalispell has blossomed into something the entire community can be proud of.
The HEART Program is a nonprofit organization that encourages growth and graduation by helping meet the basic needs of Kalispell and Evergreen students struggling with homelessness.
Is homelessness really a problem in the Flathead Valley?
“Yes, and it is greater than you think,” says Casey Driscoll, HEART Program Director.
As she explains, “Families that were barely getting by pre-Covid, have found that they can no longer afford to stay in their rentals or homes.” With a vacancy rate of only 1% in the area, landlords have been able to increase rates nudging this vulnerable group out.”
There are programs for many but finding space for families is tough. “Many of the older kids take to couch surfing, and try to get by without being seen,” Driscoll said.
Let’s look at the three segments that make up the Heart Program that serves Pre-K through High School:
The HEART Locker is a facility that acts as a “store” at no cost for students to receive clothing, school, and hygiene supplies.
This is where the program started, and it continues to grow. Kids can shop and find stylish age-appropriate clothes along with clean hygiene items to help them fit in and build their confidence. Come Prom time an area of the store is converted to the “Prom Salon” and the kids can dress the part for one of school’s biggest events. The HEART Locker is open to all students with the only rule being to “take what you need and use what you take.”
The HEART Markets are located on the high school grounds to give supplemental nutrition
to students in need of food.
The markets were added approximately four years ago with generous donations from the food bank and have expanded with additional donations from the public and assistance from the kitchens at each of the high schools. The markets are available at Flathead High School, Glacier High School, Linderman Education Center, and have now expanded to include Kalispell Middle School.
The HEART Locker Learning Center is a location that allows students a quiet and safe
space for schoolwork.
This space is not only important for students to complete schoolwork, but it offers a positive, comfy place to just be and relax. Volunteers serve as the staff and tutors. Currently the Learning Center is open after school Monday-Wednesday.
How did Casey Driscoll get involved? “Happenstance,” she says. She had worked in higher education and completed her master’s degree in Psychology. She had planned to go into the Peace Corps when Covid-19 hit and opted for AmeriCorps VISTA (Volunteers in Service to America) project to help expand the HEART Program. As the VISTA project was wrapping up, the HEART Program started looking for a director and she “fell into it.”
I asked Driscoll what inspires her and she replied, “I wouldn’t do it if it wasn’t for the students. I have met people and learn about their traumatic experiences and they are still here showing up and trying.”
She follows with a story about a student from last year who enrolled herself and wanted to graduate. This student was driving daily from the Canyon and her car broke down. Luckily the HEART Program was able to assist with matching funds to get her vehicle repaired. “She was the first in her family to graduate and is now at FVCC (Flathead Valley Community College),” she added.
Driscoll is from upstate New York but loves it here in Montana. “It’s been great,” she said. “I ski, hike, and love outdoor activities.”
Besides Driscoll, there is one other paid staff position at The Heart Locker. That is the Case Manager position filled by Bigfork native, Elizabeth Langley.
I asked Langley what a case manager does. She replied, “It’s really hands on. I meet weekly with students at three different high schools.” She went on to explain that there are about 75 students she works with regularly in helping navigate the system. She looks for and connects students with resources that can help them in school and beyond. She wants to “teach them how to advocate” for themselves.
The basic goal is to get the students housed … off the couch or out of the car but it goes beyond that according to Langley. They don’t have the support that many of us may take for granted. She’s helped locate birth certificate copies, applying for a first job, finding mental health resources, and so much more.
“The face of homelessness in the valley is not what they (residents) assume it is,” said Langley. Students are homeless due to “no fault or choice of their own.” She found her way to the job following her work as an intern in the program while working on her master’s in Social Work. Her compassion is inspiring as is her determination to help the students.
Langley shared a success story about helping a student who rarely smiled and was doing the best she could to get by despite her circumstances which included living in a small camper. She needed to insulate her camper with foam board before it started to get too cold this winter. Langley was able to help get the camper insulated, and the grateful student texted her in thanks. “I could feel the smile via the text.” She continued, “the small wins are so important.”
Another success in the HEART Program is the Drop in Center for the older kids between 16 and 24 years old. The center came to fruition due to a team effort in which both Langley and Driscoll took key roles. It is funded by a HUD grant with the purpose of serving this at risk group of people and helping keep them off the streets.
With a job like this I asked Langley how she decompresses. “By holding onto meaningful stories even if they are sad…and the small wins.” She added that having students reach out to her shows that she is reaching them. That gives her hope and energy to keep going.
What an inspiration to meet both Driscoll and Langley and learn about The HEART Program. I know that we’re lucky to have these two dedicated ladies (and all the wonderful volunteers) committed to helping our youth in the valley succeed.
Learn more by visiting www.kalispellheartprogram.org.
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