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At the old Proctor teacherage, people leave what they don't need and take what they do

PROCTOR - The door is latched, but not locked, when the young woman arrives.

She comes quietly, shivering a bit in the dry December cold, an oversized shirt stretched around her growing belly, her fingers holding tight to a sack of baby clothes.

She comes for help, but also to help. I'm having a girl, she offers. I found out yesterday. Somebody else can use these little blue outfits, somebody with a baby boy.

On other days, the young woman has come to this tiny two-room house looking for what she does not have. Dishes to set up housekeeping when she moved nearer to her mom last summer. Boots and flannel shirts for her boyfriend when the weather turned cold.

This day, as on the others, there is no one here to ask the young woman her name or to question her circumstances. The gifts are given and received silently, anonymously at the old teacherage that sits on the fence line behind the Proctor schoolhouse.

All you need is a need.

Maxine Learn first came to the teacherage as the teacher, hired late in August 1970 to preside over Proctor's one-room school.

There were 14 children in her class that year, kindergarten through eighth grade. She'd watch from the bell tower as they walked up and over the hayfields and hills, following the paths left by older brothers and sisters, to the school that looked like a church.

In winter, she remembers, the children would play fox and goose in the snow, and she would take their pictures. At day's end, she'd walk the dozen steps to the teacherage and its little rooms with the grand view of Chief Cliff.

At the end of the year, Learn married and moved to a ranch house within sight of the school. Another teacher took her class, smaller in number now, for two more years. Then the school closed, and the building and teacherage went empty.

Eventually, someone stole the school bell and the bookshelves bought at the turn of the century. But people in Proctor and just across the way in Dayton wouldn't give up on the schoolhouse.

They organized a booster club and a rummage sale to raise money. They invited fiddlers to play. They put up concession stands.

And it rained.

The rummage went into the teacherage, for storage, with the invitation to anyone and everyone to take something home. And the idea was born, and nurtured by Maxine Learn, for the teacherage to provide a place where neighbors could tend to one another's needs.

Belongings no longer wanted could be given freely, without knowing who would receive them, knowing they would be accepted with grace and grateful hearts. Gifts from one neighbor to another, given in anonymity and with love.

And so the teacherage has served for 15 years, little known outside the small towns that line the west side of Flathead Lake, but essential to probably a thousand people.

Contributions arrive, unsolicited, and are washed and mended by Learn and a small group of women she has befriended over the years. Then they are returned, a grocery sack or cardboard box at a time, to the little log-sided teacherage and left inside on tables and in rows of old dresser drawers.

Tidy stacks of shirts, sweaters sorted by size, socks and pants. Dresses pressed and on hangers along the wall. Shoes in three long rows, children's patent leather dress-ups and rubber galoshes, women's high heels. A table of Christmas decorations when the season's near: a pint-size artificial tree with a lonely garland of silver, a sand bucket filled with tree lights, a single electric candle for someone's window.

"We try to save back for Christmas all year," said Learn. "Red shirts, party dresses, lights and toys. A little something to dress things up a bit."

Sally Arnett comes to the teacherage on Tuesday afternoons, bringing the clothes and - occasionally - stuffed animals she has washed from the previous week's collection.

She heard about the teacherage not long after moving to Dayton. Its waste-not philosophy appealed to her waste-not upbringing. Children's clothes outgrown before they are frayed can be used by other children. So, too, for parents and aunts and uncles and cousins.

Arnett is bothered when people take more than they need, as some do. And when they leave a mess, as some do. The building isn't heated, and her hands are bothered by arthritis in cold weather. This winter, she and Learn will have to close the teacherage for a while, because of the cold, because they hope to recruit more volunteers to help with the work.

But Arnett believes in the teacherage's spirit of help freely given, and of belongings used, shared and used again. Come spring, the building will open again, she is sure, with the same simple proviso: Take what you need. No more. No less.

As the sign out front instructs: "The Teacherage. Free clothing, etc."

"This place balances things out," says Gene Garrison. "If you are down on your luck, you can come here. If you have a little something extra to share, you can bring it here. Whatever or however much you need, or can give."

This day, Garrison provides a ride to the teacherage for his neighbor, Dusty Painter-Dunmire. She carries back the blue baby clothes she no longer needs, now that she knows her baby will be a girl. He brings toys and household odds-and-ends left at summer's end at his campground.

The young woman's baby is due in March, and there is much to be readied. The teacherage is her salvation, she said. "Sometimes, you can't afford the things at the thrift store."

Her mother told her about the place shortly after she moved into a mobile home at Garrison's campground last July. That's how most hear about the teacherage, from others who have come before.

A neighbor told Alma Wood not long after her family moved to Dayton. "We had no bed and were sleeping on the floor," she remembered. "We got a bed from the teacherage. Then when we got our own, we brought that one back over here."

When her son fell on bad times, the teacherage clothed her granddaughter for a while. "Without this place," Wood said, "people around here would have to go without a lot of things."

Now Wood helps Learn with a little mending every now and again, and contributes what she can. "I got this pair of pants for my niece at a garage sale, but never gave them to her. They've just been sitting in the house waiting to go somewhere."

Angie Gardner, too, has given and received from the teacherage. Near dark one afternoon last week, she was alone in the building, hunting for a little pair of blue jeans for a child whose family just moved to town.

"They're real short of clothes," Gardner said. "They need sweaters, warm things."

"This place has been such a help to a lot of people," she said. "Big families can have trouble getting clothes for everyone. Just about everyone has a hard time, sometime. But a lot of people are embarrassed to ask for help.

"You don't have to ask here."

All you need is to come.

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