Shelter for Flathead Valley homeless teens is within reach.
The Sparrows Nest Northwest Montana (formerly the Flathead Homeless Youth Committee) received a recent donation of a 6,720-square-foot building at the corner of Second Street West and Seventh Avenue West in Kalispell from Brian and Victoria Tanko of Kalispell.
The building, which was purchased by the Tankos for $140,000, formerly housed a church.
The donation is a dream realized by a grassroots effort among community members, churches and organizations that began meeting a year and a half ago to brainstorm ways to provide safe, temporary shelter for teens under 18.
Marcia Bumke, co-chairwoman of Sparrows Nest, is thrilled with the donation.
“It’s so exciting. With the home we’ll be able to move forward with the project,” Bumke said, tearing up. Bumke’s personal journey with homeless teens began years ago when she temporarily housed some of her children’s classmates who had nowhere to go.
On Wednesday, Bumke toured the building with the Tankos, some Sparrows Nest board members and other supporters who have aided the cause.
Once the former church is converted into a shelter, the building has potential to accommodate eight people.
Homelessness among area students was brought to the forefront after Kalispell Public Schools hired a homeless liaison in February 2013.
More than 347 students attending schools in the Flathead Valley were identified as homeless for the 2013-14 school year, according to the Montana Office of Public Instruction.
Of those, 116 were students in grades nine through 12. Homelessness is defined as lacking a fixed, regular or adequate nighttime residence, according to the McKinney-Vento Homeless Assistance Act.
There are few local options when it comes to housing homeless youths who are not accompanied by adults. The Flathead Youth Home has a limited capacity — two open beds — to use for temporary shelter. Facilities such as the Samaritan House only can house children under 18 when accompanied by an adult.
“This is the place for those kids that have no place to go,” Brian Tanko said about the Seventh Avenue West property. “Right now, those kids are in survival mode and that’s not acceptable.”
Victoria Tanko added, “They’ve been couch-surfing and they’ve run out of friends; they’ve run out of places to go and they want to graduate; they want to continue on but they have no place to go. This will be the place. This will be a safe haven — a place where they can continue their education.”
The Tankos learned about the extent of homelessness among local teens during Mass at St. Matthew’s Catholic Church.
“We were in church one Sunday and one of our parishioners was talking about a teen homeless issue and probably like most of us [assumed] it was somebody else’s problem. I had a calling, divine inspiration, whatever we want to call it, but I had to answer the call,” Brian Tanko said.
St. Matthew’s has been active in advocating for and supporting the effort to shelter homeless students through the efforts of Rod Stell, the church’s Social Concerns Office and Sister Judy Lund. This year, Lund secured a $16,000 grant from the Sinsinawa Dominican Denomination for Sparrows Nest Northwest Montana.
“It gives me the hope and the courage to continue to work for this cause for our young people,” Lund said about the building donation.
When the Tankos decided they wanted to buy a building for the Sparrows Nest, they called on longtime friend Dusty Dziza, owner and broker with Flathead Land and Home. Dziza said the Tankos knew she would find personal meaning in the Sparrows Nest Northwest Montana’s mission.
“My son was homeless due to drug use when he was a teen,” Dziza said.
When they closed on the property, Dziza donated her commission to the cause.
The Tankos said donating a building was an opportunity to give back to the community where they have lived with their three children for eight years and where Brian Tanko has practiced law for the past 12 years.
“The children are our future. If the children are taken care of, we’ll thrive as a community,” Victoria Tanko said. “If our town, our society, is going to grow it’s our children that are going to make the changes. There are good kids out there. Good kids, bad situations.”
The next step is to renovate the building into a shelter with bedrooms and living areas and secure enough money to staff and operate it.
“This dream here won’t happen unless the community wants it to,” Brian Tanko said.
In the meantime, Sparrows Nest Northwest Montana is working on achieving nonprofit status. Starting a nonprofit from scratch with volunteers who have no prior experience has been quite a challenge, according to Sparrows Nest board member Linda Kaps of Kalispell. At times it’s daunting navigating through all the legalities, “but we forge ahead,” said Kaps, a Columbia Falls High School counselor who sees a number of students who are homeless or at risk of becoming homeless.
The Sparrows Nest will receive much-needed organizational support through the full-time efforts of AmeriCorps VISTA member Cat Lenis, who arrived in Montana from Massachusetts last week. Some of Lenis’ responsibilities will involve grant writing, fundraising, marketing and mobilizing volunteers.
Donations to Sparrows Nest Northwest Montana may be sent to the Flathead Youth Home, 825 E. Oregon St., Kalispell, MT 59901. For more information, email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Reporter Hilary Matheson may be reached at 758-4431 or by email at email@example.com.