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Share the Spirit tags get filled by students

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A group of Mission Middle School students already know what’s inside several Christmas packages around the valley and they didn’t have to peek to find out.

The students belong to a club called Dogs with Wings and they went on a gift buying field trip last Thursday. Their trip finished with a stop at the Share the Spirit warehouse in Polson to drop off presents.

Student Rudy King, 13, looked at the toys in one of the aisles at the Polson Walmart before the students went to the warehouse. He wanted to find a few “perfect gifts” to fill a child’s wish list. He decided on a Lego set, a truck, and a blanket.

“We wanted to buy presents for kids so they have something for Christmas,” he said.

Fifteen MMS students selected tags from one of 13 Share the Spirit trees spread across the county in different businesses last month to begin their annual project to buy presents for children in need. The students raised the money to buy $750 worth of gifts by collecting fresh tree boughs from the tribal wilderness with permission and help from the Confederated and Salish Kootenai Tribes. 

The students trimmed the boughs into workable pieces and used them to make wreaths that were sold to people in the community for about $20-$50 each. 

“We sold out on the wreaths early this year,” teacher Valerie Umphrey said. Umphrey assists students with the project that has continued at the school for about a dozen years. The project earns participating Mission Bulldog students a set of metaphorical wings for doing a good deed.  

The students divided into groups at the store with one adult chaperone and went in search of the gifts needed to fill their tags. Lake County Sheriff’s Office School Resource Officer Clay Shoemaker was on hand to help a group collect the gifts again this year. 

The students also bought gifts for veterans during an earlier shopping trip, and this year, they voted to use $100 of their earnings to purchase items for the Mission Valley Animal Shelter including animal treats, a cat scratching post, and cleaning supplies.

“We wanted to do something for the animals in need this year,” said Ashlee Peterson, 13, was trying to decide on the perfect size of dog treats to suit the various sizes at the shelter, and finally, she decided the budget would allow for both small and large dog treats.  

The kids loaded up in the bus with bags full of gifts and went to this year’s Share the Spirit warehouse on Kerr Dam Road in the Core building.

Volunteers opened the door, and the kids walked into a room that looked more like a toy store than a warehouse with tables full of items from games to clothes. Students put their items in a spot where volunteers would put them in another bag and later call the families to say the gifts were ready for them to pick up. Dozens of volunteers help with the program.

Toni Young developed the Polson Share the Spirit branch 20 years ago. She welcomed the kids into the warehouse and said that this year the program is serving 800 children in Lake County, and she was expecting more to sign up before the Dec. 21 deadline. 

She explained to the students that the program partners with Toys for Tots to help fill the tags from the Share the Spirit trees in the valley. The tots program volunteers set up boxes in businesses where people can donate a present.

The students got back in the bus to go have lunch and then drop off gifts at the animal shelter before heading back to school.

Young looked over a few things at the warehouse including hand knit items, coats and sweaters. She was getting ready to go pick up a set of sheets and blankets for a family in need. 

Young moved to Polson about 20 years ago with her husband and found the holidays to be lacking without family to share it with, so she decided to reach out to the community.  

“I found out that several organizations were doing things to help people and I wanted to expand on what they were doing,” she said. 

When she started the project, she said she never imagined how great the need was in the valley for a gift-giving program.

“I was just going to do this short term, but when you see how many people need help, you keep it going,” she said.

The struggle to survive was seen in thousands of people’s wishes for simple things from food to clothes. The program served a record 1,400 people in 2008 for one year. 

“We have a lot of homeless and very needy kids in this county with all kinds of circumstances,” she said. “We need more awareness of the problem to help these people.”

The Share the Spirit program helps children and families with everything from a warm coat to food.

“Super 1 Foods matches the food certificates we give to people when they ask for food,” she said.

Young said it’s often an emotional experience for the volunteers when people pick up the gifts at the warehouse. 

“People are so grateful for the help that they sob,” she said. “It brings many of the volunteers to tears.” 

She added that military service members with the Marines help distribute the gifts at the warehouse through the Toys for Tots program, and they get emotional, too.

“We see the Marines at the front desk in tears (too),” she said. 

The Share the Spirit program moves to a different warehouse each year, and they need another one for next year. If anyone wants to volunteer this year or next year, or has warehouse space to donate call 406-883-1046.

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