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Montanans honored for dedication and impact through service

Posted at 7:20 PM, Jun 21, 2024

HELENA — On Friday, the state recognized Montanans who have provided great service to their communities, including a Helena marine who has impacted thousands of Montana families across the state.

In partnership with Montana’s Credit Unions, the State of Montana honored six citizens and two groups at the 2024 ServeMontana Awards.

“It is important to recognize these outstanding individuals and groups with ServeMontana Awards,” said Lt. Governor Kristen Juras. “These Montanans embody commitment to others through volunteerism and positively impact change to make our state a better place.”

Honorees included Howard Mears of Helena Toys for Tots who received an “Engaged Citizen” award.

“It was a bit of a surprise. I’m very honored by it and I’m going to have some fun today,” Mears told MTN.

For the past decade, Mears had been the director of Toys for Tots Helena. He recently stepped down from that position to focus on the state’s Native American Program, which provides toys to families on reservations.

Toys for Tots is a year-round effort for Mears. He mows properties in exchange for donations, coordinates toys for families who lost their homes to fires or other disasters, and works with DPHHS to refurbish and provide toys for family visitation rooms across the state in addition to the more well-known Toys for Tots distribution.

“I work at Toys for Tots a little bit every day one way or another,” Mears explained. “So it’s something that has grabbed ahold of my heart, it’s good for my heart.”

James Laster, Lieutenant General USMC (Retired) and current President and CEO of Toys for Tots nationally, told MTN that even in an organization packed with amazing individuals Mears and Montana stand out.

“The state of Montana is special, and it’s gentlemen like Howard Mears that makes it special. Not only for what he for his service to his community but also the strong native American culture that’s here,” said Laster. “Toys for Tots has a close relationship with Native American communities going all the way back to the Native Code Talkers with the Marine Corps in WWII. Howard really helps through his leadership and community engagement to strengthen those ties with the Native American tribes here in Montana.”

2024 ServeMontana Awardees:

Morgan Bisel, Youth (Hamilton) With her Helping Hands Project, Morgan collects clothing donations for the homeless. Over the years, it’s grown into an essential asset to the community, amassing over 250,000 articles of clothing. She has spent summers raising awareness of the food needs in the community, collecting thousands of pounds of food and thousands of dollars in donations that are distributed throughout Ravalli County. She does this all while serving in numerous clubs and boards and maintaining a 4.0 GPA. 

TraJon Cotton, Young Adult (Missoula) TraJon completed over 170 hours of service to Missoula and his volunteerism impacted multiple organizations. From Diversity Advocacy to the National Bone Marrow Donor Program, the United Way Midday Moves Project, to Voter Encouragement, Mental Health Improvement for Elementary Schools, and Fall Media Day Football Clinic, he leaves a positive footprint wherever he goes. TraJon participated in mentorship and volunteerism because the benefits are life changing for those affected and those who engage. While attending the University of Montana, TraJon demonstrates compassion, encouragement, inspiration, faith, kindness, and optimism. 

Jim Sommerville, Engaged Citizen (Billings) Volunteering in youth sports for 25 years, Jim has coached multiple teams including soccer, football, hockey, and baseball. He has given thousands of hours of his own time to ensure the youth in his community have a chance to be involved in sports, creating a program that allows anyone to play regardless of financial status. As a coach, Jim builds self confidence in all kids and teaches them that “you don’t have to be the best, you just give your best”. He volunteers hundreds of hours year-round doing maintenance on Musburger field and securing donations, so the kids have a place to play.

Howard Mears, Engaged Citizen (Helena) For 10 years Howard has been the Director of Toys for Tots for Helena, but to the community, he is more. He spends hours in the summer, and sometimes stormy weather, mowing fields for the cost of a donation just so the children in Montana will have toys for Christmas. Howard is working with the Department of Health and Human Services to revamp Child Protective Services’ visitation rooms with toys and find ways to better serve the tribal youth in Montana. There seems to be no end to Howard’s heart to serve.

Alan Potter, Veteran or current Military Personnel (Forsyth) A Veteran of the U.S. Army, Alan serves as an advocate and volunteer for the organization Montana Warriors on the Water. This organization provides therapeutic outdoor fishing excursions for veterans. The excursions help veterans with PTSD as they transition back to civilian life. Alan has assisted veterans from all different branches of service to network and be supported through life’s challenges. He is also engaged in the local American Legion by organizing bingo, parades, scholarships, and more.

Gordon Reese, Lifetime Achievement (Missoula) Gordon spent 18 years making his vision of a Chief Joseph ski area a reality. He appealed to several Forest Service departments to get permission to groom trails at Chief Joseph Pass and was repeatedly denied but didn’t give up. There was also a time in Gordon’s life when he needed Meals on Wheels, and giving back is what motivated him to volunteer.  It’s clear the difference Gordon has made in our ability to enjoy Montana’s outdoor experiences, and to those experiencing food insecurity. He has been a visionary and leader. 

Greater Impact, Inc., Group Service Award (Bozeman) Greater Impact is a nonprofit organization based on Bozeman whose mission is to empower the community to help neighbors reach their full potential. The Greater Impact team makes good on that mission with a compassionate spirit to serve and uplift others. They are active in aiding individuals in recovery, addressing car troubles, and resolving housing challenges. The Greater Impact team serves others in partnership to reach and positively transform lives of individuals in need who are taking the steps to reach their full potential. 

Whitefish Credit Union, Business Service Award (Kalispell) Whitefish Credit Union’s service initiative showcases its commitment to the community through monetary contributions, innovative programs, and employee volunteerism. In 2023 alone, the credit union generously donated over $290,000 to local nonprofits, advancing affordable housing projects and addressing food insecurity. An integral part of its community support was the expansion of the School Spirit Debit Card program, designed to directly benefit local academic and athletic programs by donating $5 for each card issued to members. Additionally, they emphasize employee engagement in service which led to nearly 1,600 hours of volunteering in various activities.