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Veterans Get Community Support For Camp Ponderosa Winterization

by TAYLOR INMAN
Bigfork Eagle | November 10, 2021 12:00 AM

More than 60 volunteers showed up to help the North West Montana Veterans Stand Down and Food Pantry winterize Camp Ponderosa as part of a plan to renovate the camp into a retreat for veterans.

North West Montana Veteran Stand Down and Food Pantry Community Outreach Representative Cinnamon Davis-Hall said the volunteers were able to get tons of work done on the camp’s grounds when they met at the end of October. Her father, Stand Down and Food Pantry Founder and President Allen Erikson, is a Vietnam veteran and has spent the past two years alongside his family and others cleaning-up Camp Ponderosa with dreams of making it into a place of refuge that provides more than just food and housing.

Erikson said their plan is to give veterans educational opportunities at the camp, including culinary arts, mechanics and woodworking among other skills. Veterans would also have access to mental health services, as well as lodging and a good meal.

“I’ve been homeless and I wish I had something like this when I was homeless,” Erickson said. “...I found that ‘veterans helping veterans,’ which is our motto, goes a long way to help vets come to grips with the world,”

Camp Ponderosa sits in the Swan Valley and used to be a military-style boot camp named the Swan River Correctional Training Center. The center was built in 1967 and was in operation until 1995. The Montana Department of Corrections shuttered the facility in 1997 and later leased it to a Colorado company for use as a rehabilitative youth camp. That lasted until 2006, but then the buildings sat empty and unused for more than a decade.

North West Montana Veterans Stand Down and Food Pantry purchased the correctional center from the state of Montana for $1 in 2018. In addition, they pay $19,000 annually for the 79 acres of school trust land surrounding the facility. The camp has four main buildings and various other structures that are being modernized for the nonprofit’s mission.

During their most recent clean-up day, volunteers worked to pick-up logs around the property, putting them through the mills and cutting them into usable lumber. They also split and stacked firewood, as well as cleaned walking paths and salvaged nails from old fences for future projects. In the camp’s commercial sized kitchen and dining hall, volunteers cleaned all pots, pans, dishes and cutlery, and organized the dry storage area.

Erickson said their crew of volunteers helped tremendously, but there’s still a long road ahead. He said they have renovated two buildings so far, and the housing building will be the biggest of the four.

“The housing building is the one we’re starting on next, it still looks like a prison on the inside and we’re going to change that,” Erickson said. “We’re waiting for an engineer or an architect to come and give us some help on how to redesign the interior of this building so we can make it more functional and useable for housing and whatever else we need in there,”

Erikson said he is thankful to the people who came and helped during their clean-up, which was a lot of work but also a lot of fun.

“They worked hard, and it was pure joy to visit with these people and talk with them and work with them,” he said. “This event couldn't have happened without many hands and great supporters of our community,”

North West Montana Veterans Food Pantry and Stand Down wanted to thank Bob West, Leroy Turner, Stoltz Lumber, Montana Department of Transportation, Clean Slate Mt, Swan Chapel - Pastor Gray and members, Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints- President Carl Clark and members, Badrock Volunteer Fire Department, TJ Wendt, Steve Perrone, Tom Eisinger, Cinnamon Davis/Hall, and many community members and veterans from Flathead and Lake County for their support during their most recent clean-up day.

According to the North West Montana Veterans website, Montana has one of the highest populations of veterans per capita in the United States. Erikson said despite running the nonprofit for 22 years, they still meet new veterans all the time.

“I can’t tell you the amount of vets we’ve helped, the numbers are astronomical, and every time we have a Stand Down or a picnic, or whatever, we’re always finding new vets that need help and we jump in and help them,” he said.

To learn more about North West Montana Veterans Food Pantry and Stand Down, visit their website at veteransfoodpantry.org, or call 406-756-7304.

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More than 60 volunteers showed up to help with the clean-up and winterizing project.