- Associated Press - Friday, October 10, 2014

BELGRADE, Mont. (AP) - A nonprofit based in Whitehall that rehabilitates and cares for people who’ve suffered traumatic brain injuries recently bought a 51-acre Gallatin Valley ranch. Liberty Place will nearly double its size with the move.

The ranch is eight miles north of Belgrade and formerly was the home of Bootstrap Ranch High School, a boarding school for troubled kids from around the country. It has two lodges and dormitories, a gymnasium and a cafeteria with an industrial kitchen, said Ann Geiger, Liberty Place executive director.

“(It’s a) very peaceful setting, great place to heal,” she said.

The ranch requires about $2.5 million in renovations, which will be funded by loans from the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s Rural Development Program. Geiger said Liberty Place should open to residents next fall.

The ranch has space for 16 people, and Geiger expects to hire about 13 full-time employees. Liberty Place currently has two locations in Whitehall, the 18-acre Farmstead that serves 12 people and the Townhouse inside city boundaries that serves nine people. The nonprofit employs nearly 40 people, Geiger said.

Liberty Place began in 1996 with Geiger and three other “founding mothers” who cared for people with brain injuries in a skilled nursing facility in the Bozeman area. The four realized there wasn’t any care at the nursing facility for people with brain injuries who didn’t need intensive 24-hour care but who also weren’t ready to live independently.

They started raising money in 1997 and searched for affordable property. In 2004, they opened the Farmstead location outside Whitehall.

“We started out with not enough money to buy stamps, but we trudged on and looked at getting likeminded people to help,” said Gail Gunderson, co-founder and board member. “We were fortunate along the way to have people support us, and slowly but surely we got ourselves put together enough to provide a level of care.”

Liberty Place grew, allowing the nonprofit to open the Townhouse location in 2009. But the founding mothers wanted to give the organization a presence in the Gallatin Valley, partly because most of them lived there and also because many residents hailed from the valley.

Geiger learned of the Gallatin Valley property in 2012 from the Bootstrap Ranch’s headmaster, who lives in Whitehall. The property was being quietly shopped around. It meshed with the agricultural programming Geiger and the founding mothers built Liberty Place around.

Liberty Place serves people who had hopes and dreams prior to their accidents and who want to achieve, grow and continue contributing to society, Geiger said. Every job on a farm matters - the garden won’t grow if not watered, and the animals will die if not fed, she said.

Geiger and the landowner reached a deal for the ranch for “substantially below market rate.”

The nonprofit is launching a campaign to raise money for the expansion costs at its annual fundraiser, the Festival of Trees, which is scheduled for Nov. 20.

Last year’s event raised a record $27,000, said April Buonamici, who serves as board treasurer and has organized the festival for five years. She hopes the event will raise a similar amount this year and help pay off the debt the nonprofit incurs during the expansion.

Buonamici said Liberty Place is leasing part of the property to the Central Valley Fire District, which will provide steady income and better access to emergency services for the ranch and the surrounding community.

The amount of work ahead is daunting, but she’s happy about the nonprofit’s ability to increase its reach to help the local community.

“It means a lot of praying and worrying because it just seems like such a large amount to take on all at once,” Buonamici said. “But we have everything in place. We can move forward with this.”

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Information from: Bozeman Daily Chronicle, https://www.bozemandailychronicle.com

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