Seeley Swan Pathfinder -

By Andi Bourne

Relating through connection, providing comfort


Pathfinder file photo

Jim Haueter carving one of his animals in his shop.

SEELEY LAKE – When Seeley Lake Elementary first grade teacher Rachel Bemis first talked with Missoula Aging Services RSVP volunteer Jim Haueter about providing their students with some of his hand-carved wooden animals, it was for a end of the year gift. Now with distance learning in full swing, they both agreed it would be a great addition to the weekly packet and bring joy to the students.

Haueter started carving tree stumps on his property in more than 10 years ago when the bark beetle outbreak killed many of the trees on his five-acre property on the Double Arrow Ranch. During the winter he carves small comfort birds and other animals in his indoor workshop.

The comfort animals are very smooth, carved with a Dremel® tool and carving knifes and then sanded until smooth. Haueter leaves the animals unfinished to allow the natural wood grain to be on display. While he has sold some of the animals at area craft sales, the majority have been gifted to friends and family.

After his wife passed away in November 2018, Haueter wanted to get more involved in the community. Working with Missoula Aging Services he signed up to be an RSVP volunteer. He was placed in Bemis's class with 13 seven and eight-year-old students. He worked with the students at least once a week for two hours leading math or reading centers, assisting with art activities or working on sight words. He has also joined the class on field trips as a chaperone.

"Mr. Jim is always willing to be an extra adult to assist me with special lessons and specifically steps in with kiddos that need extra assistance," wrote Bemis in an email. "No adult that I bring into my classroom has ever garnished the attention like Mr. Jim. Even with his weekly visits, the kids can't help but run up to him and give him a big hug."

Haueter brought in his wooden carvings and shared his hobby with the students. Haueter told Bemis he would like to give the students each one of his animal carvings.

"We were thinking that it would be an end of year gift but I felt that the kiddos would enjoy it now especially with distant learning being a tense time for them," wrote Bemis.

Bemis decided to include the birds with her packet covering the International Wildlife Film Festival. This was a scheduled field trip for the class to attend in Missoula, thanks to a scholarship Bemis has received for the past two years. However with the film festival was canceled due to COVID-19.

Since SLE was doing distant learning, Bemis planned a whole week of online learning, morning meetings and paper packets on the film festival. Haueter was on board to gift each kiddo an animal wood carving to go with the animal theme of the week.

Haueter hand-picked an animal for each student from his selection of carved birds and sea life. He wrote a personalized note to each student to go with the animal. He hopes they paint them and do what they want with them.

"It was a nice little side project and hopefully it will give them a little bit of diversion," said Haueter. "It was fun and I hope it helps a little bit."

Bemis said the students were so excited to get the carvings.

"They love Mr. Jim and I know they've missed him," wrote Bemis.

Many of the students wrote Haueter a thank you card. This is something Bemis encouraged since everything is a learning experience and expressing gratitude is an important life skill.

"I wish I could do more but I'm staying pretty close to home," said Haueter expressing concern over the pandemic. "I have a new appreciation for teachers and the teaching profession and the whole school system. It was good for me and it got me involved in the community some. I've met a lot of good folks."

Photo provided

Loryn Neudecker is all smiles with the comfort bird she received from Mr. Jim.

Bemis said having Haueter in the classroom has been one of the most rewarding experiences she has had so far at SLE. Her grandfather used to visit her classroom until his health declined. Bemis said he was a huge supporter of her and really connected with her students.

"I feel that having a grandparent figure around my students is very important to help my littles with not only showing compassion but also for them to see how it is to be around someone and learn from someone from a different generation. My kiddos trust him, respect him and show great affection for him. He is a breath of fresh air and is constantly smiling and laughing with the kids yet at the same time he is focused and is a big help to me," wrote Bemis. "Mr. Jim has brought so much joy to my students and I'm confident they will remember his generosity and kindness for many years to come. Everyone should have a Mr. Jim!"


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