University Relations and Communications

Students set community table for those in need

November 11, 2010


Dan Carter, University Relations, 657-2269


‘MSUB Night on the Van’ partnership with Salvation Army lets students understand poverty issue up close and personally


MSU BILLINGS NEWS SERVICES — Every afternoon just before five, small clutches of people slip out of cars and from around the corners of cramped apartments in central Billings. Some are old. Some are young. There are kids, working men, single mothers and teenagers.


an MSUB student serves food to hungry Billings citizens

Many are simply seeking a friendly face.


All are hungry.


Each evening they can get a smile and some food thanks to the Community Table program provided by The Salvation Army in Billings. Two days a week, however, they get a little extra, thanks to the enthusiastic activism of some Montana State University Billings students.


“I didn’t realize how many people in Billings needed meals and assistance,” said Stephanie Haynie, a senior secondary math education major from Circle. “Coming from a small town, I didn’t realize that it even existed.”


On a recent night on the van, Haynie and fellow student Bekky Gratwohl, a senior elementary education major from Laurel, helped package a small cup of corned beef and cabbage soup, a sandwich and an 8-ounce carton of milk into plastic bags for some needy individuals in Billings. Working in tandem with another Salvation Army volunteer and the van’s driver, they made 11 stops in the poorest parts of Billings, giving many people what would likely be the only meal of the day.


Rick Allen, who drives the big van every night, said the crew delivers between 400 and 500 meals a night in Billings. That amounts to a meal for every citizen in Haynie’s hometown of Circle, a point of context not lost on the student.


""“I didn’t realize that we had so many who are hungry here,” she said, and added solemnly, “I was surprised at the number of kids.” 


During a short introduction to the program before the daily start of the route, Allen points out to the new MSU Billings volunteers that the best thing they can bring to their task is a “smile on their heart” and a non-judgmental attitude to helping others.  And it’s important to not assume anything. The majority of the 400-plus meals that go out on a daily basis are not for being taken by people looking for a free handout or the homeless, he said.


“These people are engaged in life,” he said. “They have a trailer or have a car or a job of some sort. They are trying. But they don’t have enough. We will serve some homeless folks, but most of them we will see are engaged.”


The “MSUB Night on the Van” partnership with the Salvation Army was developed by Kathy Kotecki, the director of the Office of Community Involvement at MSU Billings. She said some university classes connected with Salvation Army as volunteers on an individual basis, but wanted to do something more to provide a measure of service learning for all areas of the university.


“We have connected students to this opportunity through a service learning project in some courses and it's proven to be one of the most eye-opening service experience students have participated in,” Kotecki said. “I felt like it would be valuable to get the entire campus involved in the opportunity.”


""Since starting up on Oct. 7, 30 MSU Billings students and staff have participated in “MSUB Night on the Van.” Kotecki expects to have 60 participants by the end of this semester. Volunteers from Housing and Residence Life, Student United Way, Campus Corps, the Student Union Building office, Experience Leadership Project and the University Relations office have participated so far. 


Kotecki said the program not only helps bring a level of awareness to the hunger issue in Billings for staff and students, but also provides a solution.


“I think there's a shock factor for everyone which is a good thing, as it helps heighten the level of awareness people have about issues within their community,” Kotecki said. “Over and over again I hear ‘I just had no idea…’ and I think that comment validates why we do it: people need to be more aware of what happens within the community within which they live.”


Gratwohl, who has done two nights on the van as a volunteer, said her eyes were opened by the experience.

“I thought we were just going to be giving food to the homeless,” she said. “But when you see that these people are trying, it changes how you think about it.”


When Haynie and Gratwohl were preparing and distributing meals, nearly every stop had children or teenagers to feed. At one trailer park, an elderly woman visits with the driver as one of her neighbors, a frail man looking twice his age, humbly accepts his sandwich and soup. Connecting with people on the van is obviously a highlight of her day.


Short conversations about the weather hover around the outside of the van as Gratwohl reaches through a cut-out window to hand out another meal. She’s all smiles.


“Here you go!” she says. “Have a nice night!”


Kotecki said the MSUB Night on the Van is yet another way in which students, faculty and staff show how the university is integrated into the community.  The service rounds out the college learning experience in ways students never expected when they arrived at college.


“Our university community has many people with the capacity to care and this is one of many ways that we as a campus can reach out and have an impact just two nights a week on the van,” she said. “As volunteers get on the van in their MSUB gear, it shows the community that we are an integral part of what happens beyond the perimeters of the campus. I think it's a humbling experience to go out and see people, especially kids in our community, in the situation they are in and to help us be thankful for what we have and for students to understand how fortunate they are to be at a place where they are able to pursue their dream of obtaining a college degree.”


Eventually, Kotecki said she would like to see more faculty and staff to volunteer alongside students, which could lead to another MSU Billings-sponsored night on the Salvation Army van.


For more information on this and other service projects at MSU Billings, contact the Office of Community Involvement at 896-5815 or go to


PHOTOS ABOVE: Bekky Gratwohl, a senior elementary education major at Montana State University Billings, distributes evening meals to some Billings residents during a recent volunteer stint with “MSUB Night on the Van.” The effort is a partnership with the Salvation Army to give students and staff some perspective on poverty issues in Billings. In the photo below, Gratwohl and fellow student Stephanie Haynie work to package meals on the van.