On a cold winter night in Williston in 2011, Billie Pippinger, office manager and mother of three, found herself in the parking lot of Walmart after a shopping trip, visiting with a young man who had been living in his car. The temperature was around thirty below zero and Billie just couldn’t stand the thought of him spending another night without a roof over his head.
It was at the height of the boom and the scenario wasn’t uncommon as thousands of young men flocked to the Bakken region in search of high paying positions without a plan for housing. The results found hotels booked night after night and men sleeping in vehicles.
“I called every hotel in town until I found one with one room left above the bar. It was the last room in town,” recalled Billie. “I gave them my credit card information and told them the young man would be there in a bit, but the hotel wouldn’t allow me to pay for a room that I wasn’t renting personally. They wouldn’t let him stay there.”
That powerless feeling Billie felt that night, having the will to help but no tools, haunted her.
“It made me crazy that I couldn’t help this guy,” Billie said. She went home and voiced her concerns on Facebook and was met with a reply from her friend Codi Austreim wondering if she’d like to get involved in helping to make changes in their community.
Because Codi had taken notice too.
The influx of new residents working on navigating their new home merged with native residents coping with a rapidly changing community, created what the Williston resident calls a “clash between the ‘old’ and the ‘new,’” noting that she would hear new residents comment that this place was ‘backwards or boring’ while native residents could be heard expressing their wishes that things would ‘just go back to the way they were.’
“I wondered how we could help make positive change here and how we could get the new people coming here interested in staying here,” said Codi.
And so she talked to her friends, Brandy LaDue and Falon Justice, reached out via social media and soon these small group of women, with a vision to maintain and create community pride founded Williston Friendly Faces with the mission of “Turning Boomtown into Hometown.”
Four years later the group hasn’t grown past ten or so core members (nine of them women) but the impact their efforts have on Williston shines brighter every year.
“We had big ideas at first,” said Billie who explained that most members are busy, working women with young children. “But we scaled them down to what we can manage.”
And what they can manage with the focus of “Planting Positive Seeds” is pretty remarkable because they’re able to see a need, recognize their limits and partner up with other local organizations to implement change.
One of the group’s first projects was digging in and helping distribute backpacks filled with school supplies to new students in the Williston School district.
Stephanie Bakken, a stay at home mom of three explained that an oil company donated the backpacks but the school didn’t have the human resources to successfully distribute them fairly.
“We took it and ran with it,” Stephanie said, adding the group reached out to local businesses to add coupons and a folder full of relocation information for the new students’ families.
“Now every new student gets a backpack,” said Stephanie. “And we continue to do it year after year.”
And it was in that spirit of giving that the group began providing resources for families in need during the Christmas season via their “Santa’s Elves” program where nominations are taken for people in need that might be missed or unqualified for other sources of assistance.
“Maybe there was a death in the family or unforeseen circumstances, people who wouldn’t necessarily ask for help, we help them, “ said Codi.
Last Christmas Williston Friendly Faces was able to help almost one hundred Williston residents.
And it was last Christmas that the group launched The Festival of Trees, a 21 and over dinner, auction and fundraising gala where the group secured Christmas tree sponsors responsible for donating and decorating a tree that they then put up for auction.
“The event was so well received,” said Billie. “There were less than ten tickets we didn’t sell.”
As part of the holiday celebration, the group also hosts the “Reindeer Games” the night before where families can bring their kids to enjoy holiday activities and photos with Santa.
With over 300 people attending the Reindeer Games and a nearly sold-out Festival of Trees event, Williston Friendly Faces relies on and appreciates the generosity of local donors and volunteers who donate their time and talents to make these special events run smoothly.
In addition, Williston Friendly Faces partners with the Williston CVB who has a similar mission to create a welcoming community environment. The CVB utilizes the organization’s human resources to share in the opportunities and programming where appropriate.
The success of their fundraising allowed Williston Friendly Faces to sponsor a night of Downtown Williston’s new event “Summer Nights on Main” with live music, kids games, food vendors and fun for the family, a perfect example of teaming up with other organizations to create a friendly and positive environment for the entire community and a chance for the group to become more visible.
“At the downtown event I was approached by a woman who thanked us for the work we do,” said Diane Nelson, group member, business owner and mother of two. “She said ‘without you my son wouldn’t have had a Christmas.”
It’s those impacts that keep them going, participating in other events like community clean up day and executing their Random Act of Kindness event where the members of the group hand out kindness card after performing a kind act toward a community member, encouraging them to pass it along.
But one of Billie’s favorite moments of involvement is when the group participated as guest speakers during Marketplace for Kids, where they talked to fifth graders about blooming where they’re planted.
“We asked how many kids have moved to Williston from somewhere else and one boy raised his hand and told us he was new, and he just kept talking and engaging with us,” said Billie. “It was like he 100% grasped the concept of finding ways to thrive in a community.”
And while these women admit that it’s sometimes difficult to fit in all of the responsibilities of work and family, all agree that their work with Williston Friendly Faces is an important effort and provides an excellent example for their children.
“It’s a great opportunity to show our kids what it means to be a part of the community,” adds Codi.
Stephanie agrees, adding that the kids outnumber the adults in the organization and they help out with their husbands, stuffing backpacks and picking up garbage.
“In the future I would like to see us get involved in teaming up with an organization to help build houses,” said Billie, remembering the helpless feeling she had that cold winter night.
And so in it’s fourth year of existence the women of Williston Friendly Faces move forward, adding service work to the balance of their busy lives and continuing to seek out and dive in to opportunities that align with supporting their growing community, turning Boomtown into Hometown one friendly face at a time.