By Martin Kidston

When Big Brothers and Big Sisters entered the month of June, it had 58 children waiting for a match. With referrals coming in daily and funding limited, the odds of finding the children a mentor appeared as a longshot.

But June waned and last week, Big Brothers and Big Sisters emerged as one of three local nonprofits to split $60,000 awarded by the Missoula Federal Credit Union. The financial institution was celebrating its 60th anniversary and was looking to make a difference in the community.

It has succeeded.

“We have 58 children currently waiting, and it will be great to match 20 of them in the next few months,” said Danette Rector, CEO of Big Brothers and Big Sisters. “Our expenses in making a new match include interviews, background checks and reference checks. We want to make sure the child is benefiting from that relationship, and the match finds value in the experience.”

When the credit union launched its competition in mid May, its board of directors selected seven local nonprofits to compete for funding. More than 42,000 votes rolled in over the subsequent weeks submitted by thousands of credit union members.

While all seven nonprofits proved worthy recipients, voters named Big Brothers and Big Sisters, the Missoula Food Bank and the Flagship Program as their chosen charities.

“Our aim was to put the spotlight on the many great organizations that are making Missoula a better place to live,” said credit union CEO Jack Lawson. “We really saw this as an opportunity to spread the word about their programs while giving our members a positive way to impact their work.”

For the Flagship Program, the funding will ensure dozens of additional students have access to free after-school programs. The program offers constructive skill-building activities during vulnerable after-school hours. Without the program, the organization believes, some families would have no alternative for safe, affordable childcare.

The grant will also help the Missoula Food Bank provide 115 students healthy food over the weekend. The students who receive the program's EmPower Pack have been identified by school officials as showing signs of hunger.

“Every child should have the opportunity to grow, thrive and succeed, and education is a big part of that,” said Arron Brock, executive director of the Missoula Food Bank. “If you're hunger, you can't learn. The goal of this program is to give the young people in Missoula who need extra food access to that food over the weekend. Between meals should mean between 1 p.m. and 6 p.m., not between Friday's lunch and Monday morning's breakfast.”

Brock said the EmPower program served 515 students attending Missoula County Pubic Schools over the last school year. However, school officials have placed the need at 750 students.

“We know the need is greater, and we've been asked to be closer to 750,” Brock said. “The money we received from the credit union will help us serve another 115 kids. It helps close that gap.”

The funding received by Big Brothers and Big Sisters also serves the city's at-risk children who could benefit from spending time with a positive role model. Rector said children in the program are often coming out of foster care or have parents who are incarcerated.

“It runs the gamut of needs,” she said. “The one thing about kids in our program, they all want to have a big brother or sister. To receive this funding is just something you don't see on a daily basis. We do a lot of fundraising, and I know how hard it is to raise that kind of cash. This allows us to shift our focus from raising that money to finding mentors for the children in our program.”

The other four finalists in Missoula Federal Credit Union's anniversary event included the Court Appointed Special Advocates, Five Valleys Land Trust, Garden City Harvest, and Zootown Arts Community Center.

Contact reporter Martin Kidston at