Sunday, June 26, 2022

Bigfork ACES looks forward to a fun-filled summer

Bigfork Eagle | June 22, 2022 12:00 AM

Bigfork ACES recently held a luau to welcome the community into their new building, where Director Cathy Hay said they are settling in nicely and ready to tackle another year’s summer camp. During the ribbon cutting, surrounded by ACES Board members, program participants and their families, Hay got a little emotional.

“It just feels like ACES is finally secure, you know. It's not that feeling of worrying about losing your rental space or somebody's going to sell or do something. So, I just feel like it really secures a forever future for ACES and that makes me happier than anything because you know, that fear is gone of ACES going away,” Hay said.

Since moving into the former Bigfork Senior Center, ACES has had their hands full. “It takes a village to raise a child,” echoes Hay, who said the quote should be displayed on the outside of their new building. The organization feels the support of the community often, like last fall when they were able to raise $200,000 in two weeks from only eight people in order to buy their new building. Hay said the organization benefits from an involved board and several volunteers, particularly when it came to renovating their new home.

“That makes us feel really good. And you know, we had over $20,000 in kind contributions like free labor that went into redoing the building. There were financial donations and also volunteers like our painters, who said 'don't fool with it’ and took two weeks to paint this entire interior and didn’t charge one thing,” Hay said.

In addition to painting the entire interior, they put new carpeting throughout the building and made several other cosmetic repairs. They grounded the outlets for children, cleaned up the yard and got rid of hanging dead limbs and trees, replaced the gutters and got new blinds and light fixtures. She said it was only possible with the help of several volunteers, including board members, their family members and generous local businesses.

Hay also wanted to honor the late Craig Wagner during her speech at the luau, who was a former ACES Board President and a frequent contributor to the program. She said Wagner passed away at the start of 2020, but his impact on ACES persists. He previously worked as the CEO of a similar nonprofit in San Diego called Ark. As a member of the Blackfoot tribe, Wagner brought lessons from his heritage to the kids at ACES.

“He had rheumatoid arthritis so bad he could hardly make it up and down the steps that are in the building, but he would come and tell them stories. He had a whole house full of Indian artifacts … So, he would often bring things and show the kids. They learned the Blackfeet names for animals, they did their spirit animals and we made different things related to Blackfoot people. We were very concentrated on the Blackfeet Nation. The kids had a real connection to him … they called him the Big Chief, the chief,” Hay said.

She said Wagner’s goal was to build the after school program as much as he could, which included imparting his expertise in dealing with nonprofits. His previous teachings at ACES can be felt throughout their summer camp theme this year: All About Montana. Hay said their weeks-long educational camp will feature learning about the state, from its flora and fauna to geography and it’s famous residents.

“So this first week is kind of just generally talking about ‘why do we live in Montana’ and then we're moving onto wildlife, for the flora and fauna week. We have a trip plan to the biological center. It keeps going on and on, but we’ll talk about geography, geology and different national parks. The kids and the parents are really excited about it,”

Hay said they are also planning to focus specifically on Bigfork during their “staycation” portion of the camp. This will include a historical walk downtown, a talk with a Forest Service Ranger at Wayfarers State Park and other “things that kids don't take advantage of because they live here,” she said.

The kids and staff also get to enjoy some new activities this summer such as tending to their flock of chickens, which were recently donated along with the money needed to buy them a coop and feed. Hay said an employee has also taken initiative to do a special project with the middle schoolers to teach them about how to run a business. They plan to open a snow cone cart which they will stock with a start-up loan of $100 from Hay. She said she plans to charge them interest on their loan and they plan to open up a bank account in order to manage the proceeds. She said they haven’t decided on a business name yet, but to keep an eye out for the ACES snow cone cart this summer.