St. Thomas supports children and families in Montana

December 21, 2021 Providence Health Team

[5 MIN READ]

In this article:

  • At Providence, we support early childhood education programs, such as the St. Thomas Child and Family Center.

  • St. Thomas eases the way for children and their families by offering childcare and other support – including for children in foster care.

  • By keeping the focus on the children, St. Thomas positively impacts its Montana community and staff.

At Providence, we believe that early childhood education plays a critical role in family health. Through our Early Childhood Education Programs and Partnerships, we support initiatives that help children from the beginning. One program is our St. Thomas Child and Family Center.

At its start, St. Thomas was an orphans’ home – founded by the Sisters of Providence in Great Falls, Montana. Though no longer an orphanage, the center continues the legacy that the sisters established. St. Thomas offers childcare and other developmental support for children and families, with a curriculum designed to meet the needs of all growing children. Just ask Carrie Doty, Executive Director, who has been at St. Thomas since 2005.

“St. Thomas has always been for and about the children,” says Doty. “We’ve worn many hats over our history, but always with the foundation of education. We believe that education begins at birth. And we recognize how critical quality environments are to a child’s development.”

St. Thomas takes children from 6 weeks to 6 years of age, offering full-time childcare and pre-school. Within the modern facility, they have age-appropriate classes and activities that stimulate a child’s social, emotional, physical, and cognitive growth. From learning ABCs to how to share and practice teamwork – St. Thomas is all about providing a quality, safe and healthy environment for children of all economic backgrounds, faiths, and cultures.

Teacher, Kay Wood, enjoying an illustrated book with three toddlers.

St. Thomas also supports families in greatest need

One way that St. Thomas honors the Providence mission is by working closely with the Department of Family Services. When children are removed from their homes, the new foster parents or family members often struggle to find childcare. St. Thomas helps fill this gap by providing childcare at no cost for these families. They also assist with clothing, diapers, school supplies, and more. Regardless of where the child comes from or what challenges they’re facing, they are treated with dignity.

“Every child is so welcomed and so loved here at St. Thomas, and that's very important to us,” says Doty. “My greatest joy is meeting the needs of all these children and providing them a very safe, stable, loving environment.”

The families at St. Thomas are grateful for the support. For the Cunningham’s – who have two biological children, one adopted child and one foster child – St. Thomas has helped keep their children together for their childcare. And they’ve worked to get their foster children caught up on speech and other developmental milestones.

“St. Thomas has always provided a safe and nurturing environment for our kids, and we’re so incredibly thankful for them,” says Caleb Cunningham. “It’s clear that their mission is to help others and to make a positive impact on the lives that they touch.”

The Cunningham family, featured above, are proud members of the St. Thomas Child and Family Center community.

St. Thomas steps up to help for the holidays

As many families know, the holidays can be hard. And the pandemic has brought its own set of challenges. St. Thomas is always ready and able to help.

Many families at St. Thomas act as foster homes for children, and some even adopt their foster children. The state offers financial assistance for children in foster care, but once they’re adopted, the assistance ends. So, St. Thomas steps in to help, especially around Christmas time. They put up an Angel Tree for other families to support with gifts. About 10-12% of the children at St. Thomas are on the tree.

“It’s not that these families are in need,” says Doty. “It’s just that we want to help ease the burden, and we can help ease the burden. Christmas is expensive. We want to take the stress off.”

Another way St. Thomas makes the holidays special is their annual Christmas program. For 2020, the children performed without an audience on Facebook Live. It was hard for the kids and families not to be together in person, but there was still joy from being able to watch the kids. Grandparents living in North Carolina and a dad who is deployed overseas all got to see the program for the first time. It’s a new tradition they plan to keep.  

St. Thomas staff love what they do

At St. Thomas, it takes special people to do this important work with such a vulnerable population. The entire team is a family. With the pandemic, keeping up with staffing shortages has been a challenge – even at St. Thomas. They get calls every day for more families needing childcare but have to turn them away since they don’t have enough staff to accept more children. They continue looking to expand their team with more caring individuals who are ready to do rewarding and meaningful work.

To Laurie Lincoln, who has worked at St. Thomas for over 20 years, her job is a passion. “I am blessed to be able to work for an organization that not only provides quality education for children but also helps families when they need it,” says Lincoln. “We are no longer an orphanage (where, coincidentally, my mother-in-law was raised), but we continue to fulfill that same mission of helping children and families. For me, this career has been a calling.”

The work is also fun.

“I get to come to my job every day and work with children,” says Doty. “I laugh every day. I have warm fuzzies every day. I know not everyone gets that at their job.”

The children bring a lot of joy to St. Thomas. When asked how they are, they almost always say, “wonderful,” or use big words that keep the staff smiling.

Teacher, Emily Ivers, spends some one-on-one time with a happy infant.

There’s also lots of laughter. Like when a child mistook Bishop Warfel for Dr. Seuss after learning about Dr. Seuss and enjoying Green Eggs and Ham for lunch.

“St. Thomas is not just a job, but a passion gifted to me by God to love and teach small children, to show them love, kindness and joy,” says Bonnie, a former teacher at St. Thomas.

St. Thomas remains committed to children and families

St. Thomas is one way Providence serves its community – especially the most vulnerable. Education is a key part of creating health for a better world. Just like the sisters of Providence who started it all, St. Thomas eases the way for children and their families. Their work is a passion that’s rewarding in many ways.

“If St. Thomas didn’t exist in Great Falls, I can’t even imagine where we would be, especially as a family,” says Cunningham. “They extend themselves for the children in our community and develop partnerships with the families to create long-lasting influence. We’re so grateful that even during the hard times they continue to adjust and persevere all while keeping their mission in focus.”

To learn more about St. Thomas, or if you’re interested in working at St. Thomas, consider applying. We’d love to have you on the team – helping children thrive and build a quality future. You can also find us on Facebook.

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Visit our Annual Report to our Communities page

To learn more about what Providence is doing to help our caregivers and other community partners, check out our Annual Report to our Communities.

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About the Author

The Providence Health Team brings together caregivers from diverse backgrounds to bring you clinically-sound, data-driven advice to help you live your happiest and healthiest selves.

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