At 85 years old, Maria Beltran-Jensen still spends time in the courtroom, legally representing those who may not otherwise be able to afford a lawyer. Most of her work as an attorney is pro-bono through Montana Legal Services.
Each case reminds her a little bit of her own hardscrabble childhood. She talks of leaving the harvesting of sugar beets behind in order to earn a degree in secondary education. She did it while raising nine children and supporting her family. It wasn’t until she hit 50 that she opened another chapter in her life, enrolling at the University of Montana to earn a law degree. As an attorney, she’s fought on behalf of migrant farm workers, and she’s picked up the cases of women who need to create parenting plans in order to keep custody of their children.
“Here I am, little old me who came up the hard way,” she says. “I never thought I had accomplished all of that. It took a lot of hard work, determination and perseverance, but isn’t that what we all do?”
Beltran-Jensen’s story is just one piece of a tapestry of more than 170 stories that have been woven over the past 35 years as a part of the YWCA’s Salute (formerly Salute to Women). It’s the YWCA’s major fundraiser and it shines a spotlight on the women, men and organizations who work tirelessly to improve the lives of women and children in our community. The first time Beltran-Jensen was honored, it was 1998. In 2017, she was given the very first YWCA Social Equity Visionary Award.
“For me, it was so very, very special to be acknowledged like that, to know that someone knew what I was doing and it mattered,” Beltran-Jensen says. As she looked around the room that night, she knew she was in impressive company. “You are inspired by the staying power that these women show. They stayed with what they were going to do, sometimes in the face of criticism.”
“The registry of honorees is definitely a ‘who’s who’ in Billings, and not surprisingly, the stories of our past honorees are amazing and heartwarming,” says Merry Lee Olson, Billings YWCA CEO. “Some rose up from poverty, and through hard work became community leaders or leaders in their professions. Others have taught children with special needs and cared for them far beyond the classroom — even doing formal adoptions to be sure their care would continue into adulthood.” Olson says each one of those 170 plus names “represents the very large heart of our small city.”
In 35 years, what started as a modest and simple ladies’ luncheon to honor women has turned into a full-scale evening gala.
“Early on, when I was on the board, it was all hands on deck with volunteers and the board to put on the Salute. We always yearned, however, to take it to that next level. I think we’ve finally gotten there,” says Sherril Burke, who now serves as president of the YWCA of Billings Endowment Foundation Board. She and her husband, Michael, were honored with the Salute Distinguished Service Award in 2017 for their decades-long work boosting the efforts of civic, educational, non-profit and faith-based projects. Olson will always be grateful for the time when Burke first mentioned the potential of a housing project on the YWCA campus. Today, the Gateway Vista Affordable Housing project is a reality.
“We have been really blessed with a board and a CEO that have been able to take what started out really small to this great opportunity to feature some of the heroes who are in our city,” Burke says.
While this event is a way of toasting the people and organizations who make a difference, it is the YWCA’s largest fundraiser.
“Every year we have people who come to Salute for the first time — and inevitably they approach us at the end of the evening, saying, ‘We very much want to help,’” Olson says. “People become mindful that protecting women and children takes a village and they can be a part of that. Our mission to save, change and improve lives is in place 24 hours a day, 365 days a year through the Gateway Shelter, which has the only secure domestic violence shelter in an 18,512 -quare-mile section of Montana.”
This March 8, as Salute honored its next group of community heroes, Olson knows each and every donor should be added to the list of honorees.
“YWCA is ever mindful of the seriousness of our work, protecting women and children from domestic violence, sexual assault and human trafficking,” she says. “With the help of our amazingly generous community, we are able to continue to save and change lives.”