UM Sociology Students Help Hometown Montanans in Need

UM sophomore Keeza Leavens is interning this summer for No Kid Hungry through the Whitefish-based Farm Hands – Nourish the Flathead, an organization that addresses food insecurity using locally produced farm products. Photo: Andrea Getts.

MISSOULA – For some college students, landing a summer internship might mean high-rises, office attire, mundane errands and business networking socials. For two University of Montana sociology students, this summer was spent in their hometowns working at the grassroots level to help address two of the state’s most pressing problems: hunger and homelessness. They say the work is real and rewarding, and thanks to a robust training from UM, they say they are fully prepared to do the work. 

A girl holding a basket of tomatoes
UM sophomore Keeza Leavens works at a farmer's market in the Flathead Valley. 

Keeza Leavens, a UM sophomore this fall, is interning for No Kid Hungry, a national program feeding at-risk children, through the Whitefish-based Farm Hands – Nourish the Flathead, an organization that addresses food insecurity using locally produced farm products.

Kayla Ballou, who graduated in spring 2021, is taking some time before enrolling in law school to work for Tumbleweed, a Billings-based agency serving homeless, trafficked, runaway and other at-risk Montana youth and their families. 

The areas of need that Leavens and Ballou have chosen to work in reflect real challenges for the state. About one in 10 Montanans face hunger and nearly 37,000 children live in food insecure homes, according to the Montana Food Bank Network. A report compiled in 2020 documented that more than 11,000 unaccompanied minors are at risk for homelessness, according to the Montana Office of Public Instruction.

Leavens, who works as a youth ambassador for No Kid Hungry, said her interest in addressing food insecurity started back in high school, when she coordinated the Feeding and Reading Project, which provides elementary students with a hot meal while enhancing their reading skills.

Leavens attended an online training with 38 other ambassadors across the country and learned about using social media as a way to discuss hunger in the U.S.  At Farm Hands, she attends farmers markets, delivers meals with the North Valley Food Bank, organizes fresh snacks to be delivered with the local bookmobile and helps with administrative work, along with other projects.

 “I love working at the farmers market,” Leavens said. “Community members can redeem their SNAP points for locally grown fresh fruits and vegetables. And, for every $20 they redeem, we give them another $20. It’s such a great program.

kayla ballou
Recent UM graduate Kayla Ballour is working for Tumbleweed, a Billings-based agency serving homeless, trafficked, runaway and other at-risk Montana youth and families. 

Ballou, who coupled her sociology major with a concentration in criminology and a minor in communication studies, also developed an interest in social issues while in high school. She uses her time at Tumbleweed to learn more about nonprofit work – particularly youth in crisis – and finds each day to be a new and challenging adventure.

“Your daily interactions are always different,” said Ballou, who works in development and communications for Tumbleweed. “It’s exciting to show the community the work we do and how we impact youth in need, and how the community can help as well.”

Successful outcomes, she adds, are deeply rewarding.

“Everyone we work with has a backstory, and addiction is a big thing that we see,” Ballou said. “Finding the options to change someone’s trajectory and get them back on their feet is something that is so meaningful.”

Internships are an important part of UM’s sociology studies, said Associate Professor Daisy Rooks, chair of the Department of Sociology, housed in  UM’s College of Humanities and Sciences

“We offer a robust credit-bearing internship program in sociology,” she said. “Students must apply to join the program and meet several eligibility criteria, and if accepted they can earn internship credits over several semesters.”

In addition to serving in rural areas of Montana, the department has placed interns in numerous Missoula-based organizations, including the Missoula Food Bank, Poverello Center, Missoula City-County Health Department and Missoula Police Department.

Rooks adds that Ballou’s hiring at Tumbleweed mirrors the quick placement of UM graduates in the sociology program. Ballou recently even took on a new role at Tumbleweed, serving as a youth advocate with the Chafee Foster Care Independence Program, which helps foster care youth become independent adults.

“Local and regional government agencies, nonprofits and companies are eager to hire UM sociology graduates,” Rooks said, “because they know that they will arrive on the job with a systemic understanding of inequality – especially around race and ethnicity – a keen understanding of social dynamics, and strong data analysis and critical thinking skills.” 

Ballou credits mentors at UM for equipping her with skills to adapt to changing job roles.

 “Being a Grizzly, of course, I had a few professors who helped prepare me for real life,” Ballou said.

Leavens, who is enrolled in UM’s Davidson Honors College and Franke Global Leadership Initiative, said her paid internship with Farm Hands and No Kid Hungry has prompted her to consider a minor in nonprofit administration as well as learning more about the societal issues seen locally at a global level.

“I know going into my sophomore year having this experience will be incredible,” she said.



Contact: Dave Kuntz, UM director of strategic communications, 406-243-5659,