BILLINGS — The Rimrock Learning Center is a special needs program for children ages three to five, and the student population requires extra material and equipment for them to thrive.
And that equipment and material is not free, which is why the center has to rely heavily on outside fundraising to make ends meet. This year they get the first opportunity to be involved in Saturday Live and get a little extra money.
“We serve all children that have special needs in the Billings Public School District,” said Christina Salazar, a speech pathologist at the school, on Wednesday.
And this is a special place for many children, like five-year-old Jackson Gaarsland. He was diagnosed with cerebral palsy when he was six months old and has been coming to Rimrock Learning Center for almost three years, attending four days a week.
“He loves it. He has a blast when you talk about school,” said Jackson's dad, Ben Gaarsland.
Jackson works with Salazar when he is at the school.
“I’ve become really passionate about assistive technology lately, which is all of the adaptive types of equipment that a person might need to help them live a better life,” Salazar said.
And Jackson loves playing in the sensory room, which the school put together through grant money. Wednesday was the first time his dad and mom, Allie Guest, got to play inside the room with Jackson.
But all of this equipment and technology is expensive and not fully covered by Billings Public Schools. Due to confidentiality and not being able to let parent volunteers into the school often, they cannot have a regular Parent Teacher Association to help with fundraising.
“Seeing the funding that those schools were getting from PTA volunteers, we realized we were really missing out on donations,” said Mandy Williams, a special needs assistant at the school.
So, they created what they call a PTO, a Parent Teacher Organization, made up of mostly staff. They make shirts to sell and work to get outside fundraising done. One of the main goals they have for the new fundraising is a more accessible playground.
“It would be really great if we could get some equipment that’s updated for the kids with mobility issues,” Williams said.
But Jackson's parents appreciate the equipment the school does have. They just recently purchased a new chair for Jackson at home. They said it was helpful knowing it was something that worked for him before they bought it.
And his parents are no strangers to the importance of fundraising. Every March on CP Awareness Day, they hold a fundraiser to raise money to fight cerebral palsy. Last year they hit around $14,000.
“We’ve been donating all the funds to Montana Hope Project,” Gaarsland said.
Jackson is just one of about 140 students enrolled at the Rimrock Learning Center who benefits from the program.
“We're really hoping to raise some money for our students here,” Salazar said.
Saturday Live is Saturday, Sept. 24 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. at Pioneer Park. All proceeds stay in Billings schools.