Kindergarten girl, age 5, in need of a new winter coat and winter boots.
Sixth-grade boy in need of jeans and tennis shoes.
Fourth-grade girl, age 10, with special needs in need of shirts, pants, a coat, underwear, and socks.
These are just a few of the many students who have been assisted in the Butte and Anaconda communities through an anonymous electronic referral program known as My Student in Need.
For almost six years, My Student in Need, a Great Falls-based nonprofit, has ensured students in 161 schools across the state have access to clothing, food, and other supplies.
Here’s how it works: A teacher or administrator at a participating school notices one of their students is in need of something, such as winter clothing, a backpack, or school supplies. The teacher goes to My Student in Need's website, clicks the “Request a Need” submission link, answers a list of questions about the student and what they need without identifying them, and submits their request. The nonprofit then notifies anonymous donors, who help get the student what they need.
“The program is free and open to any school that wants to use it,” said Dave Snuggs, founder and executive director of My Student in Need.
The program has its roots in a similar online referral program that Snuggs started in 2012. That program, My Neighbor in Need, helps community members through item donations or volunteer chore work and requires participants to fill a need before submitting a second help request.
About a year later, in 2013, one of Snugg's friends, who happened to be a principal at a school with a lot of low-income students, said they would love to find a way to help more of their kids.
The group discussed helping these students through Snuggs’s My Neighbor in Need program, but they decided that wouldn’t work because the needs would have to be vetted by the students.
“Then someone said, ‘If you need to prove the need is real, why not do it through the teachers?’” Snuggs recalled. “I remember saying, ‘That just might work.’”
Now in his sixth year running My Student in Need, Snuggs says the groups has helped fill nearly 12,000 requests — 3,000 of which came this year alone.
During the first year of the program, Snuggs said people would sometimes show up to the school with the requested items, resulting in multiple donations of the same item.
Now, however, teachers typically help their students pick out what they need in stores or online after receiving a gift card donation.
“If students get to pick out their own items, they’ll hold onto them longer,” Snuggs said.
Dana Freshly, counselor at West Elementary in Great Falls, has been submitting requests since the program started. She said before My Student in Need, teachers and staff used to buy items for students if they needed them.
“It’s a good benefit to students and schools who utilize it, and the program allows the community to get help to students who may not otherwise receive it,” Freshly said.
At Freshly’s school, needs come and go.
And administrators for Butte and Anaconda said the same is true at their schools. But over the past year, they haven’t used the program as much as they had in the past.
Jim O’Neill said he’s used the program for Butte students maybe two or three times after he learned about it at a presentation a few years ago.
“I think it’s a good program, but it’s definitely under-utilized in Butte,” O’Neill said.
However, O’Neill said some Butte teachers have relied heavily on the program over the years. One of those teachers is Louisa Tierney, the specialized programs coordinator at East Middle School.
Tierney said she’s submitted about a dozen requests over the past four years, and every one was filled in less than 48 hours.
“It’s important people understand that this program doesn’t give handouts, it gives hand-ups,” Tierney said. “I’ve referred many of my teacher friends, and they’ve all been just as successful.”
Mary Wood, junior high counselor at Anaconda Junior/Senior High School, said she used the program to help students when she worked at Fred Moodry Intermediate. Other Anaconda elementary teachers have utilized it too, but at the high school, teachers aren’t as familiar with the program.
“I think it’s a really positive thing," Wood said. "The students I worked with were tickled."
Over the years, Snuggs said Butte and Anaconda have made up about 20 percent of the needs the program receives. This year, they haven’t received as many requests from the area, but Snuggs said that may be because the weather hasn’t gotten as cold as it's likely to get.
In any case, Snuggs is willing to work with whatever schools want to be a part of the My Student in Need program, because he knows it makes a difference.
“Students might be going through a tough time. When they receive a donation, they feel like someone cares, like they are worthy,” Snuggs said. “Random acts of kindness go a long way in this world.”