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Mission Possible — Food pantry founders turning former Montana boot camp into veterans center

By LYNNETTE HINTZE | Daily Inter Lake | Published: June 9, 2019

KALISPELL, Mont. (Tribune News Service) — With Allen and Linda Erickson, where there's a will, there's a way.

The tireless founders of the Northwest Montana Veterans Stand Down and Food Pantry have been leading volunteer troops for more than 20 years to help veterans, and they're not finished yet.

Their latest project is transforming the long defunct Swan River Correctional Training Center near Condon into the Camp Ponderosa Veterans Retreat and Learning Center in the Swan Valley.

"It is our dream to create a live-in treatment facility in which veterans can receive counseling and group therapy, along with peaceful recreation in a scenic environment," Allen Erickson said.

Veterans also will be able to learn job skills and get professional instruction with tasks such as looking for jobs and writing resumes.

The Ericksons have been spending whatever spare time they have on weekends at the old "boot camp," fixing up the facilities. A couple of weeks ago a crew from the Montana Conservation Corps provided a huge amount of elbow grease.

"Them kids did a great job. They were there for three days," Allen said.

The Swan River center operated from 1967 to 1995 as a military-style boot camp, but was closed in 1997. After the Montana Department of Corrections shuttered the facility, it later leased it to a Colorado company for use as a rehabilitative youth camp. That lasted until 2006, and the place has been empty since then.

Allen said a homeless veteran who lives in the Swan mentioned the camp facility was coming up for sale, but there was only one week left to write a business proposal for Camp Ponderosa.

The Ericksons scrambled and found someone to write the proposal, then handed it to state officials one hour before the deadline.

They figured it was a long shot.

State officials had plenty of questions for them, including whether or not the Northwest Montana Veterans Stand Down and Food Pantry gets any government funding.

"We're totally supported by the community and our thrift store," Allen pointed out. "It kind of blew their minds that we've been doing this for 20 years and the government is not involved."

It didn't take long to sway state officials toward the Ericksons' project. Before they knew it they were the proud owners of all of the center's buildings and facilities for just $1. However, the lease payment for the property, which is school trust land, is $19,000 a year.

It'll be a challenge to meet those lease payments, Allen acknowledged, but he has faith in the community's ability to rally behind their veterans.

The aging buildings are slowly being nurtured back to life. They have water now to the shop and an office building, although more repairs are needed to get the hot water working. Someone donated an overhead furnace for the shop.

"I tell people I would like to open last week," Erickson said with a smile when asked when Camp Ponderosa will be ready. "I could put a crew of 20 to work and they wouldn't be done in a month."

The Ericksons plan to create a campground at the camp with 15 RV hook-ups. They also intend to have complete woodworking, mechanic and welding shops so veterans can learn those skills. Allen said he's particularly honing in on veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder and traumatic brain injuries, among other military-related medical conditions.

There's a long wish list: someone with medical experience to put the PTSD and TBI programs together; grant writers and volunteers with handyman or various building skills, to name a few.
The walk-in cooler and freezer need to be fixed or replaced; one unit dates back to 1976 and probably needs to be tossed, Erickson said.

There's no anxiety in Allen's voice, though, as he describes the camp's many needs. Instead, there's anticipation and a vision for what the sprawling campus can be for struggling veterans.

The Ericksons hosted the first Libby Stand Down in 1999 for veterans in need. In 2002 they opened the Veterans Food Pantry in Evergreen in three Quonset Hunts until a new building was donated in 2010. Along the way a thrift store was developed to bring in more income for the veterans services.

The Daily Inter Lake has followed the Ericksons' mission since that first stand down 20 years ago, and their commitment to veterans has never wavered.

"We believe stand down is a fitting term to define our program for the homeless and needy veterans who are confronted with the rigors of homelessness," Erickson said during an interview with the Inter Lake prior to the 1999 Libby Stand Down. "It's my way of saying thanks to a whole lot of veterans."

The Northwest Montana Veterans Stand Down and Food Pantry is in need of volunteers to help refurbish Camp Ponderosa, the former Swan River Correctional Training Center near Condon. Cash donation and in-kind donations of equipment such as a heating and cooling system are also welcome. For more information call the Food Pantry at 406-756-7304.
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