Annette Hayden Havre Daily News email@example.com
Church folks are known for helping those in need. But as in any organization, there are always the few who stand out. Such was the story 50 years ago when a couple of local gals had an epiphany as in why help one or two now and then when they could devote ourselves to helping anyone in need every week? Hearts filled with a desire to serve were met by an opportunity to house quantities of donated items and food on an ongoing basis. The idea was born to hand those goods out for free to whoever came in hoping, no questions asked. It was then the two ladies from a local church, Ruth Nystrom and Ann (Johnson) Friesen, set sail to their dream and opened Havre’s Giveaway House on the north side of town. For decades the two ladies washed, sorted and inventoried donated items, administered financial donations to pay the bills, opened their doors in ongoing service to those down on their luck, and annually spread holiday cheer. Hundreds, perhaps thousands, of people seeking clothes, basic housewares, hygienics, toys for their children, food and simple necessities have seen their needs met over the years. Just as many others have been given the opportunity to see their unneeded items go to good use. "But every good thing comes to an end," said Rusty Lowry on Thursday, Sept. 7. "Yes, the Giveaway House is closing." Keeping the give going Lowry has been managing the house’s operations along with co-manager Lilly Williams for the last several years. "We will run until the insurance is due, but we plan to close by the end of the year," she said. At the Havre Daily News, telephone calls and a letter to the editor were received from community members hoping someone might help keep the Giveaway House open. According to those providing the service there is nothing to be done. "The Giveaway House has run its course," Lowry said. "It isn’t really for lack of anything, though for the last few years money has been down, and stable volunteers are hard to come by. But the real point is we are all getting old. "Ruth, who founded the Giveaway House along with Ann, passed away a few years ago," she added. "And Ann is in a care facility. Those of us left are in our retirement years. We are tired now and we think it is time maybe for someone else." The "we" she spoke of included long-standing Giveaway House supporters Ford and Ellis Johnson. "The Johnson brothers, Ann’s family, have been a tremendous help since day one," Lowry said. "Ruth’s mom had the building, after she died it went to Ruth, and Ruth Said we could use it until we were no longer able to run it her way then it would go to her estate. There is a quick deed on the property and it will revert to her children. They live out of the state. "It was always important that we not use grants or other structured funding for the house, because Ruth and Ann didn’t want any one else to have control," Lowry added. "They didn’t want anyone telling them how to run the Giveaway House." And so, for a large part of their lives Ruth and Ann were able to see their passion for helping continue freely, and their loyal volunteers after them followed suit. Taking it on "I’ve been with the Giveaway House for 16 years and Lilly has been here about 17 or 18 years," Lowry said. "I started up helping Ann. I was disabled, and I didn't leave the house. I thought I needed to do something. I thought I would help Ann for an hour or two a week. I remember telling her in the beginning This may be your life, but it is not going to be mine!’ "Somehow it happened," she chuckled. The Giveaway House volunteers remain a tight knit group keeping Nystrom's vision alive. "We have a board of directors Max Connor is chair," Lowry said. "It consists of the Johnson brothers, myself there have been a lot of dedicated people over the years, but everyone is older now, retired and passed. It’s harder to get help now, but lots have helped here and there over the years. "A few years ago things were bad and the community and high school kids really pitched in and made a big difference," she added. "It’s had its ups and downs. The last few years, monetary donations have been down. We have always gotten lots of donated goods. It is just, now, the regular volunteers are getting older. It is a lot of work and it takes dedication. People will say they want to help. They will call and then never show up, or they will come once and we don’t see them again. It isn’t the kind of thing you can do now and then. It’s hard getting help and financially, the regular donors have passed away. There used to be more people volunteering on a regular basis, dependable and long term." A time for everything Loyalty and devotion can live long after the leader has passed the torch, but in the end it is the heart’s fire that must burn. After losing both of its founders, the Giveaway House lost its core. "Really the Giveaway House has run its course," Lowry said. "And I really think when Ann couldn't come back that took some of the heart of it. She went to Anaconda close to three years ago to stay with her daughter. It’s Ann’s birthday, she is 84 today (Thursday). We are not young people and the hearts that started it all are gone." The question now on the lips of many community members is will anyone in town step up to take action and keep the good will going? "I’ve heard people talking about starting up a new Giveaway House, but there are rules and regulations," Lowry said. "We have never affiliated with other organizations, because we didn't want other rules. It is sad to see it closing an era ending. We have had people say they are interested in taking over and keeping it going, but it is not easy to start up. The building can no longer be used. There is a lot of administration work. Donations here are tax deductible, but those rules change every year it takes work to keep up with the changes. A new person would have to file for that status. We also pay liability insurance, utilities, there is overhead. You need a real willingness to work. People offer to work here often, but they either never come or never return, or their idea of helping is to load up their car with what ever they want." Of all of the Giveaway House’s struggles over the years, collecting donated items to load up in people’s cars was never one of them. "There have always been lots of donations," Lowry said. "We have had strange things over the years, too, really strange I’m not going to go there now. But I can say we have gotten and given everything but the kitchen sink and even a kitchen sink! Our van was given to us. Once we got a trailer and gave it to someone who needed a home. I make layettes for newborn babies. There is so much. It really has been good service. But there are other expenses like gas, insurance and upkeep. Up until a couple months ago we also did baskets with food, that was expensive. We are not doing food anymore, people still donate and we give it to the food bank. We figure that is their thing." The final months As the Giveaway gang looks to the final weeks not much is changing. Workers say they intend to continue their tradition of giving right to the end. "We are still taking donations," Lowry said. "As it comes in we are giving it all out. The thing that has changed is the planning. I have always saved certain things for the holidays, but last week I put out Valentines and St. Patrick’s days. This week I’m doing Easter, because we won't be here for any of those. We have always done Christmas baskets, too, but not this year. In the past at Christmas we kind of took up the slack there are a lot of singles and seniors not covered by The Salvation Army or the food bank, and we have always taken care of these folks. We have always had great support from the churches with that." The Giveaway House currently remains open from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesdays and Thursdays. No appointment is necessary. Clients sign in upon arrival and assistance is available once a week per individual. Though the Giveaway House’s official closing date is not yet known, organizers said they do know the doors will not open past December 31, when the annual insurance becomes due. And when the last item is gone and the lights shut off for the last time, the long devoted have rest in mind. "I’m not sure what we will all do except take a good rest," Lowry said. "I don't know, Lilly always says no good deed goes unpunished. We still have people come in all of the time, and as long as we are here we will give them what we can, dishes, bedding, whatever, as long as we have it we will give it. Then we will all go on vacation. My grandson is coming home from war and I’m going to take a couple of weeks to visit my son and his family." Then Lowry’s voice faltered a few syllables. "You know I had a really bad time in my life before I came to Havre and if it wasn't for the community my son and I lived in, my son and I wouldn't have made it. "That is what we tried to do here at the Giveaway House," she said regaining the strength in her voice. "There are businessmen out there now that tell me they couldn’t have made it when they started without our help, like with their kids’ clothes and other things. And they have given back. It’s a circle. We really appreciate this community’s support we couldn’t have done it without them. "Community is what it is about. When we close, someone else will pick up the slack."