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Columbia Falls Boys and Girls Club moves into former school

Hungry Horse News | April 10, 2024 2:00 AM

The Boys and Girls Club in Columbia Falls has moved into a new location at the former Glacier Gateway Elementary School.

Through the generosity of the building owner and a new nonprofit, the club will lease the upper floor of the spacious building, doubling the club’s capacity and moving it out of the old church that had been home for years, but has seen better days.

Freedom Bank President Don Bennett and other community members recently formed a new nonprofit, the Columbia Falls Kids Foundation, which is a 501(c)3 corporation.

Building owner Mick Ruis and his wife, Wendy, are in the process of donating the former elementary school building to the foundation. The foundation, in turn, is leasing the top floor to the Boys and Girls Club for $1 and will also lease space in the building’s two gyms to the Ruis Wrestling Academy, a youth wrestling academy Ruis founded and funded.

In the long term, Bennett said the foundation hopes to renovate the lower half of the building to provide space for a daycare provider.

Ruis originally bought the building on Fourth Avenue West for $550,000 in 2021 from the Columbia Falls School District. At that time, he planned on renovating it for senior and teacher housing.

The Boys and Girls Club, however, was an immediate need. The old church is in poor shape, having suffered a water leak this winter during the January freeze.

“We’ve always cared about the community …half our grandkids live in Columbia Falls. We just wanted to give back,” Mick Ruis said.

Ron Osterbauer, interim CEO of the Boys and Girls Club said it will allow the club to expand, too. The space is about six times larger than the church, he said, and can serve up to 140 children.

The club hosts after school programs for kids in kindergarten through 12th grade, though primarily focuses on elementary school children. Demand is high and it has a waiting list.

About $77,000 of renovations on the upstairs are expected in the coming weeks. Bennett said Freedom Bank donated $10,000 and the Federal Home Loan Bank matched that with $30,000. In addition, there have been previous donations from a host of other community members.

Ruis also improved the heating system and shored up the roof. The building itself dates back to around 1940. It was originally the Columbia Falls High School, then the junior high school and most recently, space for Glacier Gateway Elementary School.

Bennett said the need for affordable child care in Columbia Falls is high. At Freedom Bank, he has several employees who have children and need quality care after school that the Boys and Girls Club provides. He said that eventually adding a daycare will make it easier for parents to pickup up and drop off kids at one location.

In addition to Bennett, Keith Valentine, Cameron Johnson and Justin Lee sit on the Columbia Falls Kids Foundation Board, but it would like to add more board members, Bennett said — such as young parents who are actively involved in the community.

The Boys and Girls Club also owns about 3 acres adjacent to St. Richard’s Catholic, where it has plans to build a new facility at some point, but Osterbauer said that’s a long-range project, as the estimated cost is about $10 million.