Living—It’s About Giving
A Friend of the Community Shows Us The Way

BY MOLLY BROWN

Seated at the kitchen table of her modest home in Living-ston, Elaine Kimbler looks less like the “warrior” that some have called her than your everyday mother, neighbor or friend. Conversation ranges from the privately run prison corporations that cross the national landscape to the bubbling lentil soup on the stove, and finally to Elaine's passion, her nonprofit organization, Friends of the Community.

Seated at the kitchen table of her modest home in Living-ston, Elaine Kimbler looks less like the “warrior” that some have called her than your everyday mother, neighbor or friend. Conversation ranges from the privately run prison corporations that cross the national landscape to the bubbling lentil soup on the stove, and finally to Elaine's passion, her nonprofit organization, Friends of the Community.

“You realize, you and I are the demographic of the person who supports nonprofits in America—females in the lower and middle classes.” Asked why she thinks it boils down to women helping women, she answers “Empathy. We have empathy, and that is the core of true community.”

But do Livingston and Bozeman really need her help? Do we have homeless people, people who cannot get enough to eat, who cannot afford to buy a tank of gas, or diapers for their babies? On the surface we appear as any other small town in America—distinct class divisions. but no one perched on the corners with a tin cup and a sign.

Embracing a view shared by many, Elaine sees the contempor-ary family as “fractured.”

“My nonprofit exists for two reasons,” she said. “Number one is the breakdown of the family structure in America and the subsequent breakdown of the extended family, the safety net. Reason two is the failure of the federal government to help the weak in our society with programs that get them back on their feet.”

For the last eight years, Elaine Kimbler has been an advocate for people in crisis in Livingston and surrounding areas that include Bozeman, serving those who have often seen life deal them a bad hand. “You know, I'm the demographic of those whom I serve,” she said. “I work seven days a week, don't have health insurance, a single mother who can't make enough money to save,” and with an estimated 47 million people in the United States who do not have health insurance, she is not alone.

Elaine tells the story of how she came to be a “warrior” to anyone who will listen. Struggling as a single mother of three, her family included a newborn with Down syndrome. When the house she was renting was sold without warning, she was left with few options. “I couldn't afford to move. The security deposit required to move was more than I could come up with. Daycare for handicapped infants was nearly non-existent.” The family ended up in a motel for six weeks and she went on welfare.

“It can happen to anyone. I sometimes look at people who have plenty of money, position, and a secure future and want to say to them 'it could happen to you.'” Eventually, she found a place to live, work that could be done at home, and simply put one foot in front of the other, day by day, and made things work. “It was tough. There were many times I had to tell my children that the things they wanted, well, they'd have to wait and get them when they were adults.”

Elaine's struggle was Livingston's gain. “I realized that our government, our churches, our families were not the safety net that I had once thought they were.” She asked who I would call if I became homeless. Family? And what if they cannot help. Friends? Again, what if they cannot help. Recently, a friend called Elaine after an article appeared about her, expressing shock upon learning that she hadn't been called for help. “I didn't think I could call anyone,” Elaine said. “That's what many people feel when they are in trouble.”

In Livingston, there is someone to call. Other nonprofits will steer people to her for her special kind of giving. “I give things, not money. I give gas cards to people who need a tank of gas to get to work; gift cards to people who need diapers, or sundries. It costs $20 a week at a Laundromat for a family of 5 to keep their clothes clean. Some simply cannot afford that.”

The Food Bank, Loaves & Fishes, Community Health Partners, the Community Closet and the Mental Health Center all send people to Elaine. Persons in need also hear of her through word of mouth. “I only take first names and do not have long term relationships with the people. It is easier on all of us that way.” Much like in the movie Field of Dreams, where Kevin Costner is told if you build it, they will come, Elaine finds that when there is money in “the kitty,” people in need tend to find her. “This is finger-in-the-dike kind of help, not long term,” she said. With the average gift totaling $200, it is often a gift that simply keeps people going. The stories are varied: a single mother with two young children who needed transportation from the motel where they were housed to her job—a pre-paid taxi card was her gift; a grandmother raising two grandchildren who cannot afford diapers and baby food was given a gift card to Albertson's to stock her kitchen; and a month's rent went to a single dad whose unemployment wouldn’t pay the rent during his off-season.

“Most of the people who need help are working and trying hard to make ends meet,” she said. “They simply can't.” Elaine doesn't judge people. “You can't judge,” she said. “Judging others keeps people from giving.”

When there’s no money in the Friends of the Commu-nity bank account,” Elaine gives encouragement. “It helps people so much when someone sees their suffering, their need or problem, that someone cares enough to help them.” Often all she can give is advice. No one is ever turned away without something. That something might be a networking idea or a possible solution. A woman called worried that her power was going to be turned off. She had not been able to pay her bill. Elaine asked if she had called HRDC; she had with no success. Then she asked if she had sent in her low income assistance application. She had, but had not heard back. Elaine had no money at that time so she encouraged the woman to call then and there and demand help. She told her to call her back if HRDC couldn't help, and then Elaine would see if she had any other ideas. She never heard from the woman again. Her problem was solved.

“I often spend time with people helping them understand that they have choices when they think they have none,” she said. “We have unrealistic expectations of people who need help. It's counter-intuitive. Not everyone can just pull themselves up by their bootstraps. It is in our vested interest as a community to help the weakest to do better,” she explained. Elaine goes on to say that in a caring community, the stronger always takes care of the weaker members.

Elaine comes by this way of thinking naturally. When asked who her heroes are, she doesn't hesitate before saying her great-grandparents. “They raised 10 children and two grandchildren. It was never a question of whether to help out. My earliest memory is of my grandmother standing at a stove, cooking. Food was given to those who needed it. During the Depression, if there was a knock at the door, and there was a request for food, it was given without question. They weren't rich, but they shared what they had.” She goes on to say that this is what is missing in the culture today. “I don't like the fragmen-tation that I see… there is no safety net of people helping people.

Another hero of Elaine's is Oprah Winfrey. From the shine in her eyes and the increased tempo of her speech, it is easy to see that she gets revitalized and draws inspiration from the woman who has touched so many lives. “She is an angel. She is an angel because she teaches good stewardship of wealth and resources.”

Elaine's great-grandparents are in good company with Oprah and several other heroes of Elaine's: Jimmy Carter, Mother Theresa, Bill Clinton (I like what he is doing in Africa for AIDS), Martin Luther King, Gandhi and Michael Moore. “He's controversial,” she said, “but he shakes things up.”

One person in the community who knows the effect Elaine has on people's lives is Bruce Lay. No stranger to philanthropy himself, Bruce has his own nonprofit organization, Children in Need, which is run through Rotary Club.

“She's changing hearts where I'm just touching lives,” Bruce said. “Our programs both reach out into the community, but where I'm giving, Elaine is embracing, sometimes literally, the people who are in need.”

Bruce has been a member of her board of directors since its inception, eight years ago. Meeting her helped fuel a nascent desire in him to help in the community, especially among children. “Elaine has taught me so much. She taught me the importance of not being judgmental. When there are times I might feel that their problem is something they brought on themselves, something broken that you just can't fix, Elaine just tells me 'Bruce, at that point in their lives, they are broken. We just need to help them fix it.”

Friends of the Community is an unusual nonprofit with about 80 percent of its proceeds going to direct giving and only 20 percent going to operations. “In the nonprofit community, it is typically the reverse,” she said.

But these days, “the kitty” is empty, and has been for four months. With the price of nearly everything rising, the problems people face making ends meet are increasing.

Many feel helpless about the need and suffering in the world, that their contribution would pale in comparison to huge corporate and foundation grants, and they allow that sense of helplessness to be a reason for not being involved in some way. “People let themselves off the hook, and they shouldn't,” Elaine sighs. “I think we are all on the hook, and we should all be doing better.”

Robert Worobec, owner of Foodworks Natural Market in Livingston and Oak Street Natural Market & Deli in Bozeman agrees. “There is such need for Elaine's style of giving. She has an innate talent of looking at practical solutions at the specific moment of need. That is what giving is: seeing at that particular moment what is needed and having the compassion to give.”

Day in, day out, Elaine is not someone who sits around and bemoans the despair she sees around her. She is on the move, looking for ways to help her community. Ways that may seem insignificant in the larger world of philan-thropy, but that can make the difference between tragedy and another hopeful day.

When it gets right down to it, the question that keeps surfacing for Elaine is Am I my brother's keeper? “I answered that question years ago,” she said, “and the answer is still yes.”

Interested parties may send tax-deductible contributions to Friends of the Community, Inc., 1313 W. Geyser, Livingston, MT, 59047, or call 222-6526.

A Stranded Family’s Day to Remember

Near Livingston’s Interstate 90 overpass, Elaine Kimbler spotted a young woman walking, carrying a car seat, and holding the hand of a boy who looked too small to walk. It was a blazing hot day and the woman looked as if she needed a hand. When Elaine pulled over and asked what the problem was, the woman started sobbing and said that she, her husband and son were driving through Livingston from Missoula on the way to her grandmother's funeral in Billings when their car broke down 15 miles east of town. They had spent all of their extra money for the trip to the funeral of the grandmother, who was very close to the young woman. She said no one would stop as they sat beside the road all day. Even Highway Patrol cars had passed and never stopped.

So she took her son, crossed the Interstate, flagged down a trucker, and hitched a ride to Livingston to see if she could find help.

Luckily for her, she ran into the only person in Livingston who has a charity that pays for car repairs, and all the car needed was a starter. After it was purchased, Elaine bought meals at McDonald's, because the family hadn't eaten all day, and she had someone with a truck take the woman and her son to the disabled vehicle where her husband installed the starter in 15 minutes. She gave them some gas money too, and they were on their way at a cost of $100 to Friends of the Community. These people surely remember Livingston as the place someone helped them through an agonizing ordeal.

While talking to this young woman, Elaine found that she had called her family in Billings for help. The family was upset that she had missed her grandmother's funeral and wouldn't come to help her. The natural safety net of family, community and friends was not there, as is too often the case these days. This is a good example of what a small amount of money can do to make a difference in the lives of ordinary people.

 




         
   


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