Sometimes generosity comes from the place you’d least expect it and touches your heart. In the case of Toys for Tots in Helena, it comes from two local bars that focus on putting smiles on kids’ faces Christmas morning.
It all started 21 years ago at Valley Hub. Tammy Laib, the owner of the Hub shared, “It began when two customers, Lynda and Lenny Johnson, started talking to me about holding a pool tournament for Toys for Tots. Lenny was a retired Marine, and they came to the Hub and played pool a lot. We made $300 from the tournament that first year.”
Over the next 20 years, participation in the program has continued to grow. In fact, the Valley Hub and its sister bar, Laib-ation Station, have raised more than $120,000 for Toys for Tots, and in just 2017, the two businesses together raised over $24,000!
The Laibs, Tammy and Myron, will tell you it’s their patrons who make this event so successful. “Our customers are working stiffs and they save all year for this and put every dollar into it they can. One year a family who had just had big medical issues, who couldn’t afford their own holiday, came and supported the event because they wanted to give back to their community.”
Tammy owns the Valley Hub and her husband Myron owns Laib-ation Station. “We have a healthy competition between the two bars to see who can raise the most money for Toys for Tots each year,” said Tammy, smiling. When asked if it’s an all-out war between the two bars, Laib responded “Oh hell ya!” And the battle has just begun. Last year Laib-ation Station won for the first time, raising $12,100 to Valley Hub’s $12,000. This year, the Hub seeks to win back their title and honor someone special. “My mom passed away this year,” explained Laib. "Dec. 1 would have been her birthday. I’m dedicating this year’s fundraiser to my mom.” The Dec. 1 event at the Hub includes a pool tournament, a raffle for prizes, plus a 50/50 raffle and a silent auction. The Station will hold a pig roast and live auction on Dec. 8.
Registration for the pool tournament begins at 8:30 a.m. and the games start at 10:30 a.m. “We’ve had as many as 110 players entered in this tournament. They keep this weekend open every year,” Laib explained proudly. “This is the one tournament each year where people play for the kids. Raffle and 50/50 tickets are sold throughout the day and at 4 p.m. the Marines will come in, wearing their dress blues, and we’ll start giving away the prize baskets. It’s so amazing when the Marines walk in.”
After 21 years, traditions abound at these two events. Each year the pool players are fed Myron Laib’s famous homemade goulash. The last prize given away during the raffle at the Hub is the one personally purchased by the woman who helped start this event 21 years ago, Lynda Johnson. Sadly, her Marine husband Lenny has passed away, but every year Linda Johnson buys the biggest TV she can find and donates it to the raffle.
Toys for Tots Coordinator Howard Mears has great stories from these events that he loves to share. “An attendee at a past event asked me, ‘When are we going to start this auction? I’m here to raise money for toys!’” Last year a pig was raffled at the event at Laib-ation Station and that alone raised $2,500; then something amazing happened. “The person who won it donated it back and it was added to the live auction. It sold for $1,500 and was donated back again. This time it went for $1,600 and again, was donated. The next person bought it for $800 and she donated it back and finally someone got it for $500 and kept it. That single pig raised $6,900!”
Tammy Laib and Howard Mears mention the generosity of over 200 Helena businesses and emphasize how important their role is in the success of these fundraisers. “We start working on this in June or July,” explained Laib. “We go around to Helena-area businesses and ask for donations for prizes that we use to make gift baskets for the raffle. Last year there were 261 gift baskets! It’s businesses like Smitty’s Fireplace Shop that donate year after year, and Paper & Felt who have donated the pool tournament trophies for the last 20 years. When we start asking local businesses, we get smiles everywhere we go. Helena has been amazingly generous through the years,” shared Laib.
That takes a lot of volunteers and most of them are customers at either the Hub or the Station. At the event at Laib-ation Station, it’s the customers who supply the meat and the food for the pig roast. “The customers and the bartenders do this,” said Laib. “They plan it and bring everything for this event.” At the Hub, volunteers work for months putting together baskets and making beautiful barbed-wire wreaths to add to the raffle. “It’s such a showing of generosity and paying it forward. It’s about human compassion and kindness.”
Taverns throughout Montana are dedicated to their communities and making a positive impact in the lives of others. Tammy Laib is rightfully very proud of this event and the role her bars and customers play in it. “Just think what we could do if one bar in every town could take this model and make it happen in their community!”
Mears is grateful for Valley Hub’s and Laib-ation Station’s generosity. “These two locations donate over 50 percent of all the cash donations that the Helena Toys for Tots receive all year,” explained Mears, who besides coordinating the Toys for Tots program is a retired U.S. Marine Corp sergeant. Each year, the Helena Toys for Tots program gives 11,000 - 15,000 toys to as many as 2,200 children. “We touch the heart of Helena, and Helena touches our heart.”
Margaret Herriges is the executive director of the Montana Tavern Association.