BILLINGS — It was anything but a typical Wednesday for students at Hardin Academy.
Instead of math and science, they headed to Rimrock Mall and Walmart after each received $150 and a trip to Billings for a shopping spree.
"They have Cardi B on vinyl," exclaimed Taylon Mountainsheep, Jr. while deciding what to spend his money on.
He ended up with his favorite chocolate - Ferrero Rocher - and a new pair of Jordans.
The idea was to give the students a chance to buy something for themselves, though as usual, most focused on presents for family.
"I don’t want to spoil the gifts for my family," Laryssa Old Elk said when asked what she bought, "but I got stuff."
"Because they're native, they're more communal, so they're more apt to think of others instead of themselves," said John Dust, Jr., a teacher at the first-year school, "as much as we’d like them to be selfish today."
That giving spirit is what inspired the academy. It’s one of five programs in the state aimed at students who fell behind during the pandemic and often need more than traditional education offers. The program meets in a temporary trailer on the Hardin High School campus and has plans to build a full facility.
"All we’re doing is meeting students’ basic needs," said principal Taylor Sidwell. "We're caring for them for the first. We do the education. We work on their social and emotional skills, but in the end, we're just caring for their needs."
"'Did you eat last night? Do you have food? Do you need school supplies? Do you need clothes? Do you need to wash anything?' Anything and everything they need, we try to give it to them," said Dust, Jr. "If they can't get a ride to school, we go pick them up even."
The shopping spree is just another example that shows this group’s compassion.
"I was surprised (today)," Mountainsheep, Jr. said. "This is something that never happens, you know? They care about us - that’s what it feels like, a little more than the other school. It's pretty cool."
For everybody involved.
"That was the No. 1 mission the very first time we all met: we just want to make sure they're all loved," Dust, Jr. said. "That hit home really hard for me, because that's what I wanted to do as a teacher, but I thought in a traditional setting I wouldn’t be able to. So I thought maybe teaching isn't for me.
"But when this came about, I thought, ‘Heck yeah, that’s what I’m all about.'"