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Billings women's group holds fundraiser to help women pay for school

Pumpkin Painting
Posted at 4:36 PM, Oct 06, 2023
and last updated 2023-10-06 18:36:05-04

For more than 20 years, Karen Corell and Jolene Lehman have organized a pumpkin-painting fundraiser that helps other women pay for their education.

The event is run through a women's organization called Philanthropic Educational Organization (PEO), which has chapters all over Billings and around the country.

Lehman said that most chapters have their own fundraiser, and that pumpkin painting has always been theirs. The idea first came from a holiday tradition.

"I started doing it with my neighborhood kids 20 years ago almost," Lehman said at their event this year. "Then we thought, 'Maybe this would be a good fundraiser.' That was kind of it, and we just ran with it."

Longtime friend and co-event organizer Corell said that while the program has grown over the years, their goal has remained the same.

"Our main purpose is to raise funds for women to get their education," Corell said. "Because some people really need it and it can make a huge difference. Even something small."

Karen Corell and Jolene Lehman

Each year, the group selects a woman who is struggling to pay for her education and has applied for the scholarship. Typically, they look for those who are trying to further their education but can't come up with the money.

"We like to find single moms, or maybe somebody working a couple jobs," Lehman said. "Sometimes they have taken a break from school for life reasons. We just look for someone that could really use it and try to help out where we can."

Once the recipient is selected and the pumpkin orders are made, the group of women get together in Corell's garage and paint more than 100 pumpkins. They said they've gotten more efficient over the years, and now they attack it using an assembly-line approach.

"Everyone kind of knows their role," Corell said. "Someone's got their red, someone's got the black, someone's got the white, and we all just do what we need to so that it gets done."

They said that the number of pumpkin orders has fluctuated over the years, ranging from 70 to 130 orders. But always, the mission remains the same.

"We do nothing but fundraise for women's schooling," Lehman said. "That's what we do. It's impactful because some of these people, they just don't have the funds to finish that last little bit."

Pumpkin Painting

Last year's recipient was Hardin native Bailey Nedens, who had originally gone to school to become a teacher but realized it wasn't the right career for her.

"I got my history degree from MSUB, and I just was planning on becoming a teacher but kind of realized it wasn't for me," Nedens said. "So, I got a job at Billings Clinic and realized I wanted to become a social worker."

That new career path required more education, a financial burden that Nedens said would have been a struggle.

"I was going to have to do extra hours outside of my normal job just to make it work," Nedens said. "Their scholarship really helped with all of the payments and all of that stress."

Lehman said women like Nedens are exactly who the fundraiser aims to help, and that painting the pumpkins wouldn't be nearly as satisfying without it all going towards a good cause.

"If we were just doing this to take money for ourselves, that would not be as fun," Lehman said. "We like doing it because we are doing it to help somebody."

Corell said it wouldn't be possible without the countless volunteers from their chapter who show up every year.

"All of us are so glad that we can do it," Corell said. "It's one of those special things that we don't want to give up."

Corell helping pumpkins

Nedens said she couldn't be more grateful.

"Their contribution to my education was very valuable, and I'm thankful for that," Nedens said. "I'm thankful for being in the job I am today because of their help."

Corell and Lehman said they have no signs of stopping anytime soon.

"It just keeps growing, and we never thought it would get to this point, but we aren't looking to be done next year or anything like that," Corell said. "Eventually, we will have to step away, but I think when Jolene and I give it up, somebody else will take it over."

And who knows? It might just be left in the hands of someone who knows firsthand just how impactful the program can be.

"Showing up this morning to see all of these ladies painting pumpkins to sell, I just think that was great," Nedens said. "It makes me interested to help in the future to help other women go back to school."