Planting Seeds of Opportunity in Billings, MT
What goes around comes around.
At least that’s the motto that Majors Kevin and Linda Jackson have been using since they began working at The Salvation Army in Billings, MT just under two years ago.
Upon beginning their service in Montana, the Jacksons found there was something lacking in the long-term outcomes of their social services. Were they meeting the big picture needs of their clientele by feeding them once in awhile? Were they truly helping to break the cycle of poverty?
“People would come in and talk about their debt, addictions and other issues. We found that we just weren’t providing people a way out of their situations,” said Major Kevin.
They decided to start breaking the poverty cycle 20 years ahead of time by increasing their efforts on supporting disadvantaged youth. A new concept for The Salvation Army? No, but their methods are certainly innovative by today’s standards.
“We decided to make a commitment to young children in need. Why wait until they’re crashing at 23 when we can really make a difference now?” he said.
Committed they were. In just two years, The Salvation Army has partnered with local foundations, officials and Montana State University (MSU) to offer area children a plethora of opportunities in agriculture, music and the arts under the program name, “Middle Ground.”
“Agriculture is very important to our region and food is something has always been central to what The Salvation Army does,” he said.
And it meets more than one need by providing work and putting food on the table. In fact, Salvation Army founder General William Booth operated orchards and farms to meet the same needs back in the earliest days of the organization.
But rather than laboring in fields throughout the day, children ages 2-18 manage their agricultural projects in the hours after school. The food that they grow is either donated to The Salvation Army’s Community Table program or is sold in the community with profits benefiting Middle Ground and later, an education at MSU for the young farmers.
“Our Community Table program involves cooking and packaging up to 1000 meals per night that are delivered and enjoyed together with families in need. About 70% of the kids in Middle Ground come from this program. For some kids, The Salvation Army is the only safe place they have in their lives.”
An added bonus of Middle Ground: all of their work is environmentally-friendly, from recycling operations to urban farms.
“We have a strong theological position: it’s God’s good creation and we need to care for that.”
Since the program’s founding, traditional urban farms have sprouted up within the city, about an acre each. The Salvation Army also boasts indoor growing, farm land outside of the city and most recently, trout farming tanks.
“The nitrates from the waste of the trout feed the worm farm, which in turn creates good bacteria for the lettuce that we grow.”
The Jacksons couldn’t be more pleased with the results of Middle Ground’s student-centered learning, and thanks to community support, they’ve been able to hire the best instructors in the region to teach in all three programs.
“We’re big on education. Kids who were on the margins of society have real opportunity in our programs. Some are speaking three languages; their cognitive development is off the charts,” he said.
And many are becoming brilliant musicians in the music conservatory. “It’s not just a band aid anymore,” he said, “these kids have real hope now.”