By GREG LEMON Independent Record
Published October 20, 2013
You may not know they’re there. You may only hear about them when you see an article in the newspaper or get a fundraising envelope in the mail once a year. But there’s a network of angels working to support Helena’s neediest students.
The Angel Fund began rather simply in 1989 when Marcia Wall, then a counselor at Helena Middle School, realized there were kids not attending field trips because the few dollars it cost to go was too much for their families. She also noticed that some students would wear the same clothes every day or not participate in gym class because their shoes were held together by duct tape.
For Wall, these kids brought back painful memories of her own childhood growing up impoverished on Sunday Creek near Miles City.
“I came from extremely humble beginnings,” she said.
Wall was the middle child of three girls. She grew up wearing secondhand clothes and, being tall for her age, wore too-short, hand-me-down jeans to school.
She and her sisters were aware that they were different than most of the kids who got to buy school clothes each year and had enough money for new shoes when they outgrew their old ones.
When Wall got to college, she worked extra jobs to buy clothes for her sister, who was still in high school. She also remembers saving for months for a prom dress.
“I paid two or three dollars a week forever and I bought it,” she said with pride still strong in her voice.
Coming from the background she did, Wall understood better than most what kind of struggle low-income kids in her school were having. It wasn’t just about cold feet or low grades in gym class. It was about fitting in and feeling like a regular kid. Just having normal clothes and regular school supplies can mean everything.
“It just makes an enormous difference in your self esteem and who you are and how you perform,” she said.
In 1989, the tipping point came when six kids at HMS failed to make a field trip to the Museum of the Rockies in Bozeman because of the $6 cost.
“It just broke my heart,” Wall said.
Though $6 might be too much to ask for from the families of some of her students, it wasn’t too much for her.
“I just told all the teachers ‘If kids can’t afford the field trip, I’ll pay for it. If they can’t afford a pair of shoes and they’re getting marked down in gym, I’ll get them a pair of shoes. If a kid is freezing to death, then I’ll get them a coat,’” she said. “So that’s how it all got started and then it got kind of expensive.”
When she started focusing on the need within her own school, she began to see that it wasn’t just a couple of kids who needed help. It was more than she and her husband, Mike, could do.
So the following year, she talked to a few of their friends around town and raised a bit more money. But the need and the program developing to address it both continued to expand. The following year, she mailed letters to local business leaders. After that, it was the local service clubs. Then she started writing grants. The money for the program was kept in an account by the school district and kids from across the school district were benefitting.
In 1998, Wall transferred to Helena High School and decided it was time to create a nonprofit organization separate from the school district. She decided to name it the Angel Fund after her grandmother who had oftentimes been her angel when times were tough growing up.
“She was an angel to me and she was my important person in my life,” Wall said. “I just think we all need that special person who encourages us in life and she was mine.”
In 2002, Wall retired from the school district and focused her efforts on the Angel Fund, which continued to grow.
It started with $25 about 24 years ago, and this year the budget is $130,000. They give out a handful of $1,000 college scholarships each year and help 800 kids within the school district buy clothes, shoes, school supplies or pay for field trip or class project fees. They also partner with Running for Montana’s Future, which is sponsored by the Montana Attorney General’s office and the Helena Police Department, to buy nearly 150 pairs of shoes for low-income kids.
Each school has an angel coordinator, who works with Wall to help identify kids and families who may need a little extra help.
The process is confidential and simple. Any teacher may see that a student needs school clothes. The teacher lets the angel coordinator know, who then reaches out to the family. The family fills out a simple application and, when approved, takes their voucher to one of six participating stores in Helena. Elementary kids are eligible for $100 and middle and high school kids are eligible for $150.
The parents pick out what they need for the child and then put it on hold at the store, letting the clerk know it’s an Angel Fund purchase. Then Wall or one of five volunteers gets a call and go down to the store, approve the purchase and then pay for it. Then the family comes back to pick it up.
The various steps in the process help ensure that the items the Angel Fund volunteers purchase are going to the child in need, Wall said.
In addition to these programs, each year the Angel Fund coordinates a “Stuff the Bus” program that partners with local businesses and organizations to collect school supplies for area classrooms. The supplies are collected in a bus and then distributed on Saturday just prior to the beginning of school.
Wall still works diligently at managing the Angel Fund and nearly all the funds collected go directly to their programs. Her reward is in seeing the kids feel confident in a new pair of shoes or with a new backpack. And she knows that helping kids today, will give them the motivation to help others down the road.
“We need to make sure the generation we are helping now is going to help the next generation,” Wall said. “If someone would have showed me the kindness and generosity that Angel Fund shows these kids, it would have made a tremendous difference in my life.”