BILLINGS — In Billings on Saturday, a person could have started their day off with a run to benefit childhood literacy before spending the afternoon with the LGBTQ community at 406 Pride Festival and Family Day.
People laced up their sneakers at South Park in anticipation of the 9 a.m. starting gun for the eighth annual RiverStone Health Scrub Run. The 5K race wound through the historic South Side neighborhood and saw runners of all ages.
About 350 total people participated both in person and virtually in the race. As well, a handful of children raced in the Kids' Dash, a shorter race around a section of South Park sidewalk.
The race benefited RiverStone Reads, a program that sends a book home with every child who comes to visit the RiverStone Health clinic, dentist, family health or immune clinic. RiverStone staff this year have a goal to donate 3,000 books to kids.
Before the start of the run, the crowd observed a minute of silence to remember the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Following the silence, a member of the band, Free Spirit SOUL performed a rendition of "God Bless America".
Across town over in North Park, people gathered for 406 Pride Festival and Family Day. The event was a part of a weekend of Pride events happening in Billings.
In the park, 50 different organizations had booths at the event supporting the LGBTQ+ community in Billings.
The event was the first back since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic for 406 Pride, a Billings nonprofit that operates the only LGBTQ resource center in the city.
Walt Donges, 406 Pride president, said the community has anxiously been waiting for an opportunity to get back together.
"We haven't had the support in the community, in fact it's been eroded through the COVID pandemic. These guys, they were screaming for it before we ever really got on our feet and made stuff happen. As you can see, we've got 50 some booths and vendors here. People are wanting to get out again and wanting to do something. The gay community needs support and this is how we do it," Donges said.
The resource center serves as a place for general information, information about transgender procedures and most importantly, a friendly ear to listen for people struggling in the LGBTQ community, Donges said.
“We’re there just to listen. Sometimes people come in and they just need to tell somebody something, tell them whatever. We’re there to listen. We are not counselors, but many of us have been through some stuff in our lives and we know how to listen," Donges said.
The pandemic was tough on the volunteer-led 406 Pride Resource Center, with many volunteers unable to work and operating hours cut. In the three years the organization has been in Billings, volunteers have been able to help people in the community, Donges said.
“We need to continue to make a difference in Billings and we know that we are because we’re seeing parents come in and grandparents come in looking for those resources and leaving at least feeling like, ‘Okay, at least I have somebody now I can talk to.’ And that’s crucial for this community to grow and thrive," Donges said.
There are also positions open on the nonprofit's board, Donges said. Only six of 14 positions have been filled so far.
With the Pride festival taking place the same day this year as 9/11, Donges remembered where he was that day in 2001. He had just gotten his two kids off to school and was about to leave for a flight to Butte for a business meeting when he saw the news.
Donges said the sense of togetherness across the country in the wake of the attacks is something people should try to remember and implement in their lives in the present.
“The impact was my family got tighter because we didn’t know what was coming up next. And I was a single parent, single gay parent raising two children, so it was tough. It was a tough time. We have used that to come together. And that’s part of this theme here today with pride, better together. We created a community after 9/11 with the ‘United We Stand’ t-shirts. Everybody had them," Donges said.
He gestured to the group of people browsing booths at Pride and said, "We’re better together, we know that. We’ve had a tough time and we know that if we organize and forgive each other's small differences and focus on the goal, that we can make that goal. That’s how it's focused me," Donges said.
Next year, Donges said the festival will have a parade and move location to downtown Billings under Skypoint. He said to mark the calendar for June 25, 2022, for next year's Pride.
“We know we need to make a difference. We need to be visible. Being in the park is great because we’re protecting our families, but we need to be downtown where we can make a difference," Donges said.