BILLINGS – The property at the corner of North 16th Street and 7th Avenue North in Billings’ North Park Neighborhood remains riddled with piles of wood and metal. But it’s a monumental improvement from the shape it was in when the sun rose on April 27, 2022.
“It feels great, actually walking through after the first half hour to an hour. It was great to be able to walk through and see how different it was from when we first started just this morning,” said City of Billings Code Enforcement Officer Marshall Glunt.
Glunt opened a case on the property about two years ago.
But he quickly realized this wouldn’t be a cut and dry code enforcement case.
The man living there was Dan Huff.
He was diagnosed with amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, better known as ALS, or Lou Gehrig’s disease.
“When they started coming by, I was working with Dan with his medical issues, and they were phenomenal helping to understand the scenario and the situation. They were compassionate, patient, but yet at the same time, they stayed on top of it,” said Susan Gontarek, Dan’s sister.
Huff was diagnosed with ALS in December of 2019, and less than two years later, on April 16, 2021, it claimed his life.
The Huff Family Legacy
If the name Huff sounds familiar, that’s because the Huff family coordinated antique shows at MetraPark.
Dan’s father sold secondhand goods, then eventually focused on antiques. He passed the business onto Dan.
“It started over 50 years ago at the Shrine Auditorium. And he also had the antique store, Huff’s Junk and Stuff on 4th Avenue, so it’s just an accumulation of the last two or three years when he was sick and we had to shift everything and clear out that store, put it over here. He was a treasure hunter and he loved passing on treasures to other people,” Gontarek explained.
“He did a lot of garage sale shopping for those special antiques, but he also started carrying the household junk type stuff too, so we went from one to the other, then back again. Now we’re trying to clean up years of collecting treasures,” said Dan’s other sister, Pam Waddell.
Both Waddell and Gontarek were on hand for Wednesday’s big clean up.
They were two of the 30 or so people on the property on Wednesday, lending a hand.
The other 24 were volunteers with Billings Adult Municipal Treatment Court.
“It’s been everything that I could hope for, it’s been amazing. Getting a chance to prove myself to society again, they’re helping me so much with that and holding me accountable. It’s cool because it’s not like a punishment. After a while you see that they really want to help you get better,” said JT Keith, 31, a participant in the treatment court program.
Gathering the volunteers to assist with the clean up is the result of a partnership between code enforcement and Judge Sheila Kolar of Billings Municipal Court.
“I think it’s a good experience to go out into the community, regardless of what our project is, but I think it’s especially humbling that we can go out and help someone specifically in the community,” said Laura Neil, Billings Adult Municipal Treatment Courts program manager.
A community service project is a program requirement.
Neil explained the opposite of addiction is connection, which is what they want participants to do, connect with the community through these projects.
“They’re volunteers, they’re not criminals, they’re not addicts. They get to come out into the community and just be who they want to be and get praised for being that,” Neil said.
The treatment court program is a year and a half long and is open to offenders with misdemeanor DUI or drug charges.
It’s offered to qualifying offenders in place of jail time.
During that time, they’re required to make appearances, random drug and alcohol testing, a treatment program, self-help meetings, and other requirements deemed necessary by the treatment court team.
“When we do volunteer projects, I’m usually excited. I actually get to give back to a community that I kind of really put a negative influence on in the first place. So it really makes me feel like, when I give back, I can take what I’ve learned and turn it into a positive memory instead of these negative things that I put out there. I can actually give back now, which I think is really cool,” said Samantha Brun, 29, who is on track to graduate from the program in July.
Also available is a Co-Occuring Court, for those with substance abuse and mental health related problems.
“It helped me with my mental health and be accountable for my sobriety, and it’s helped me process the issues that have stacked up throughout my life of drug abuse and misbehaving. And this is an amazing opportunity to give back to my community and start making a difference the right way,” said Jesse Hall, a treatment court volunteer.
Hall shared he has been sober for one year, and has been part of the treatment court program for about 10 months.
Dressed in blue coveralls, he was looking forward to Wednesday’s clean up.
“Every opportunity to give back and make this town beautiful, it’s very important. This town is my home. I love it. I love the people here. The support is phenomenal,” Hall said.
Brun also participates in Co-Occuring Court, she finds it offers the help she could’ve used, even before her addiction.
“I really didn’t have any coping skills for my mental health, I never learned how to deal with it and instead of actually seeking out those healthier options, I ended up turning towards unhealthy coping mechanisms and that kind of created the addiction that I found. Not only have I learned skills to cope with my mental health, but it’s really helped me overcome the actual addiction that I was facing because of how I chose to deal with that stuff, and I wouldn’t have looked for help otherwise,” Brun said.
As the treatment court participants shared their experiences, they reflected on the bond they’ve created because of the program.
“The way we come together, support each other, even outside of treatment,” started John Plovanic, 38, who is in his 5th month of the program.
“We’ve helped each other on the brink a couple of times,” Keith added.
“We push ourselves, and each other,” Hall explained.
“And then the court team will go out of their way to help us,” said Plovanic.
Plovanic strongly recommends the program to anyone who qualifies.
“Doing these projects, I’ve done one prior with code enforcement, just by myself, and it was super cool. It was rewarding to give back, since in our drug use, we’ve taken so much from our community, and ourselves, and our families, so it’s a way to give back,” he said.
With two dozen volunteers on hand, they managed to fill three dumpsters in three hours.
“It’s amazing. It doesn’t matter why they’re here. As Dan would probably say it, it’s life energy that you do for others, and that’s really what they’re doing. They’re using their energy to help and do for Dan, and for their city and for their community,” Gontarek said.
About 10 more volunteers were at a second property that same day, clearing up clutter from the yard of a house listed on the dirty dozen list.
Although it was hard for Dan to let go of his items, his sisters feel he would’ve approved the clean up, especially because of who was helping that day.
“He was a recovering alcoholic for 29 years. And so he would be very happy to see this coordinated because he had life issues that were difficult earlier in life,” said Waddell.
Dan also had a teepee business named White Buffalo Lodges, offering teepee manufacturing, sales and service.
His sisters have repurposed the business name to create a foundation to help people facing a number of issues.
“It will help other people with special needs or in special situations, disabilities or alcoholism, depression, any mental illness. So we’re hoping in the future we can carry on his legacy to help many other people,” Waddell explained.
The Home Stretch
During the final hour of clean up, volunteers could be heard saying things like ‘I don’t want to stop,’ and ‘I wish we could keep going’.
They were scheduled to go from 9 a.m. to noon, and with 15 minutes left on the clock, the third and final dumpster of the day pulled up.
Teamwork was on full display as all the volunteers lined up to put pieces of wood they had piled up next to the street, into the dumpster.
“It’s amazing. They always have such a great attitude. They are ready to do what they have to do, and when they go all in, they go 100% in and I’m just always so proud and so amazed at their commitment. They took it in stride and it’s always good to see,” Neil said.
Dan’s family will be responsible for hauling off the remaining items on the property.
Inside of the house located on the property is the place Dan called home.
Still filled with antiques and other vintage items, the family plans to sell them when someone is around to open the doors.
Even after everything is sold, they’ll still have memories, and the message Dan left behind.
“He wanted to spread a message of love. One of his things was hugging your loved ones. He wanted to do a billion hugs for ALS. You never know how much time you have. So take advantage of the time you have,” said James Huff, Dan’s son.
Code enforcement and Municipal Court would like to thank Pepsi for donating beverages for the volunteers. Cenex Zip Trip donated the ice to keep the drinks cold.
If you would like to contribute to the White Buffalo Foundation, donations can be mailed to Dan’s sister at 133 6th Avenue West, Kalispell, MT 59901. Dan’s sister Eileen Lowery is the director of the foundation.