2020 has been a difficult year for many of us.

Yet, as is always the case, there is hope to be found, joy to be shared, thanks to be given. As we look across the Treasure State, we find stories of communities pulling together in the face of adversity. We see lives touched by kindness. We watch as everyday people make a positive impact in a dark time.

Great Falls is but one community that characterizes Montana’s outpouring of compassion. Nearly 60,000 people reside here, and all have something to be thankful for.

Give Thanks for Local Business

The impact of COVID-19 on the national (and global) economy is almost unfathomable. A report from Yelp indicated that sixty percent of “temporary” business closures due to the pandemic became permanent by September 2020. More than 100,000 small businesses in the United States have closed their doors forever.

The loss of small business can be devastating to local economies. Whereas about ten cents of every dollar spent at a megastore stays in the community (and that’s being generous), roughly half of every dollar is retained by a locally owned business. This money may be spent at other local businesses, donated to a local charity, or invested in a community project or event.

Furthermore, less plastics and fossil fuel are used in the packaging and transportation of local goods, and (generally) local merchants use land more productively than corporations.

Shopping local is good for the economy, good for the environment, and good for the community.

Great Falls can be thankful then for the perseverance of its small business owners. In the first three quarters of 2020, the community saw few permanent closures. To the contrary, Great Falls has seen a surprising amount of growth.

“Development continues to happen in spite of the pandemic, so that is a great thing,” says Joan Redeen, Community Director of the Great Falls Business Improvement District.

Each quarter, Redeen compiles statistics for the Montana Main Street program in Helena. What she’s found is that since January 2020, Downtown Great Falls has seen $3,483,022 worth of development. Ten new businesses opened Downtown, while only two closed (one due to retirement).

“I think that’s a lot to be grateful for in this crazy year,”says Redeen.

Give Thanks for Local Restaurants

While many small businesses have overcome challenges created by COVID-19 (and the response to it), none would ultimately survive without support from local patrons.

“Anybody can make a difference,” says Beth Branam, who has helped promote Great Falls restaurants throughout the pandemic. “We all want to get through this together.”

Branam is not a restaurant owner, or restaurant worker, or even in the food and drink industry.
She and her father, Terry Hurley, started a Facebook page called “Great Falls Take Down & Take Out” to drum up business for local restaurants struggling with the new health guidelines.

“We started it in March, just a little after the shutdown,” Branam explains. “My dad wanted to do something to help but isn’t very tech savvy. I said, ‘Why don’t we make a Facebook group?’ We invited our friends to join and we challenged them to visit one restaurant a week.”

Before they knew it, the private group was a community sensation. So many people asked to join that Branam and Hurley were compelled to open it to the public. Within hours, membership increased by 500, reaching 5,000 in just days and leading to weekly challenges at many restaurants.

Today, Great Falls Take Down & Take Out has more than 10,000 supporters.

“It’s amazing how supportive everybody is,” says Branam. “Restaurants are great at coming up with new ideas and adjusting to this new climate, but they might need help communicating what’s changed. This offers them a platform to post those changes. Anyone can post encouragement for local restaurants. It’s an outlet of positivity.”

Daily, community members post pictures of meals they’ve enjoyed and help raise awareness for some of Great Falls’ lesser known gems. Several restaurant owners have indicated to Branam that thanks to Great Falls Take Down & Take Out, their business is doing better than ever.

It’s unclear what the role of Great Falls Take Down & Take Out will be once dine-in service restrictions are lifted, but for now Branam is grateful to be an administrator of this community resource.

“Great Falls is a really giving community,” she says. “People want to know how to help.”

Give Thanks for Local Heroes

There’s a quote that keeps circulating social media—advice from Fred Rogers when the world is a scary place: “Look for the helpers. You will always find people who are helping.”

Great Falls is teeming with helpers. From frontline healthcare workers to the essential employees keeping our grocery stores stocked, there are many worthy of recognition. One segment of the community that tends to be overlooked through all of this is the nonprofit sector devoted to Great Falls’ most precious asset: our children.

“With the pandemic, a lot of daycares shut down and parents their lost jobs. Where there’s anxiety and depression, a lot of the time that’s when child abuse and neglect happen,” explains Samantha Stutzman, Program Coordinator of Toby’s House.

Toby’s House is a crisis nursery named in honor of October “Toby” Perez, who on June 24, 2011, sustained broken bones, extensive bruising, and brain swelling at the hands of her mother’s boyfriend. She suffered for hours before receiving medical attention and was pronounced brain dead the following morning at 1:28am. She was two years old.

To prevent this tragedy from happening again, Toby’s House was established as a refuge for children who might otherwise be left in a hazardous environment. The crisis nursery hopes to open by the end of 2020, eager to provide safety and security for Great Falls children and their families.

“I liken it to preventative medicine,” says Stutzman. “You have a yearly exam so that you don’t get to the point of needing a major medical procedure. In childcare, we have preventive resources in place so that children don’t have to experience neglect and abuse.”

Stutzman hopes that the nursery’s opening will provide relief to families that are struggling through the pandemic. Now a parent can drop off their child—for free—while they look for a new job, go to a doctor’s appointment, or even just take some much-needed alone time.

“If you can’t care for yourself, you can’t care for someone else,” says Stutzman. “We want to stop abuse in its tracks by providing this community service.”

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Montanans are known for their perseverance. Even during a pandemic, communities like Great Falls continue to grow, adapt, and thrive. In this season of gratitude, may all of us across the Treasure State give thanks.

Give thanks for small businesses that make Montana a great place to live. Give thanks to those who care for the most vulnerable among us. Give thanks that we are all in this together.

If the trials and tribulations of 2020 have revealed anything to us, it is the true meaning—and power—of “community.”