by Betsy Cohen – The Missoulian

A multimillion-dollar fundraising campaign is a challenge at any time.

But when Watson Children’s Shelter launched a three-year public effort to raise $4.4 million in 2007 to build a second facility, the nonprofit organization had no idea the Great Recession was on the horizon, that major employers in western Montana would be closing or downsizing, that unemployment would shoot up and that many people with jobs would see their stock market investments tumble.

“It was about the worst time for us to be fundraising,” said Fran Albrecht, executive director of the shelter. “But we had to persevere. We had no choice.

“We needed to grow. We were turning kids away because we had no room for them, and that was heartbreaking.”

Watson Children’s Shelter provides emergency care for western Montana children from infancy to age 14 who have been the victims of abuse, neglect or abandonment.

Each year, the shelter’s 16-bed facility on Fort Missoula Road provides for more than 100 children, and offers a safe, homelike environment and professional services to give them another chance at childhood.

Now, thanks to the generous hands and hearts of western Montana, the nonprofit has a second home on Buckhouse Lane that can accommodate another 16 children.

“To me, there’s a lot of heaviness in the world and this is a reason to celebrate,” Albrecht said on Sunday while giving a tour of the new 17,000-square-foot Craftsman-style home. “There were times when we really doubted our ability to see to the end of this campaign successfully, but we did.”

As of this month, the fundraising campaign is officially over and the target goal has been hit.

“This is a remarkable achievement for all of western Montana,” Albrecht said. “There are so many people and so many stories to tell about how this all came to be.”

Money and sweat equity came from all over: From lemonade stand donations, to penny collection jars at St. Joseph School, to significant hard cash donations from community leaders such as Terry Payne, to a newlywed couple who asked that any wedding gifts be donations to the campaign, to carpenters who donated expert hands-on work, and other professionals who gave in-kind support.

“I get teared up just thinking about it,” Albrecht said. “The pressure to make this happen was extreme and the anxiety was great, but every time it seemed like we couldn’t get passed an obstacle, some door would open that would renew our faith.”

Montana’s congressional delegation help direct a total of $1.25 million in federal funds to the project and Missoula’s generous spirit rallied again and again to help, she said.

The Rotary Club of Missoula, for instance, was so moved by the need and the shelter’s valued work, it stepped forward with the club’s largest donation ever and provided the funding to build an entire wing of home where the children sleep, and paid for a well endowed laundry room with banks of appliances.

“We faced many hurdles along the way – a down economy, failing at our first attempt for federal funding, building permit issues,” Albrecht said, “but we persevered with help from everywhere we turned.”

***

Because the facility serves young children, CTA Architects in Missoula made every effort to design a home that is user-friendly and exceptionally comfortable for little people.

Low countertops, easy to access cupboards and closets are among the many child-friendly features of home, which also includes furniture that is just their size.

“Even though they come here for really awful reasons, we see so much good here,” Albrecht said. “The minute children come here they are welcomed by a staff that is trained to work with kids who experience trauma.

“They receive a safe place to live and play, and that change in their life is immediate. You see these kids change, and the schools see these kids change – they become more confident, they engage with others and they take better care of themselves.”

Since construction of the Buckhouse Lane home was completed in July, dozens of children have been given the gift of refuge and help there.

All is in place to serve and protect these young people, and thanks to western Montana, their future is bright.

“This is a celebration for everyone because we are taking care of more kids from across Western Montana,” Albrecht said. “We can welcome more kids into the safety of our home, this home, which is all about saving lives.”

Reporter Betsy Cohen can be reached at 523-5253 or at bcohen@missoulian.com.