BILLINGS — It's an eight-hour drive to get to the Shriners Hospitals for Children in Spokane, Washington, to Daylis Stadium in Billings, the site of the 74th Montana East-West Shrine game. It's a long distance, but the distance doesn't dull the impact of the hospital's care, which can be felt throughout Montana.
On Saturday, the best high school football players from the East and West will battle it out in the longest-running football game of its kind, AKA the "granddaddy of 'em all" with the express purpose of helping the Shriners help children.
Lexi Emineth, 18, from Laurel was one of those kids. She helps the players understand what the game is about and represents children helped by the Shriners one of two patient ambassadors for the game.
“The Shriners, they’re here to help you. If you are in need and you do need help, then they are here for you. They can become your family at any point," Emineth said.
Emineth said she was 16 when a regular doctor's visit revealed she had scoliosis. She was referred to Shriners Hospitals for Children - Spokane, and doctors there said she would need surgery to repair her spine. Doctors told Emineth if she didn't have the surgery, she could be in a wheelchair by her 20s.
Shriners hospital staff made the experience easy, when it could have easily been the opposite, Emineth said.
“It was an amazing visit. You walk in there and everyone’s just like family then. It was very awesome. It was nice because I got to spend that summer recovering before I went back to school," Emineth said.
A check-up appointment later revealed the unfortunate news that Emineth had hip dysplasia in her right hip. The condition again required surgery and recovery was tougher than the first, Emineth said.
“I was going up there kind of thinking that the back one was the hardest one but the hip one definitely was, just because I wasn’t able to walk on it at all. But people there, they were awesome, they got me through it," Emineth said.
The surgery was successful and Emineth has been living a healthy, happy life since. She just graduated from Laurel High School and said she hopes to catch up on some of the summer fun and life she missed out on while in recovery.
Emineth's father, Kevin, said his gratitude for the Shriners help was difficult to put into words.
“You never really look into Pandora’s Box until you are thrown into it. I’ll tell you what, the feeling of greatness when you’ve got people helping you is unreal. It’s hard to express," Kevin said.
“When you see a kid walk out of a Shriners hospital with a glow, you know they did it right," he added.
In Billings, there's a team of Shriners who work to make connections and pass out business cards across eastern Montana with the goal of finding kids who could benefit from care at the Shriners hospital.
Ron Swenson is chairman for the group, called Al Bedoo Shrine Hospital Corps. He also serves as the general chairman for the game, helping to organize the event.
“Our mission is to go out and find kids. It’s difficult. You would be surprised how many people don’t realize what the Shrine Hospitals can do for you," Swenson said.
Swenson has been a Shriner for 20 years and has been active in Billings since 2014. He said he finds great value in helping children. Swenson remembered a moment he shared with a woman while at a St. Patrick's Day parade in Billings.
“One of the gals came out of the crowd and she grabbed my hand and she said thank you. Thank you so much for helping with my child.’ And she held my hand for about half a block and just totally overwhelmed me. It’s a lifetime experience for me," Swenson said.
As far as the football game, Swenson said it takes about 100 people to coordinate the spectacle, but after 74 years, the event is "a well-oiled machine" at this point.
"We’re one big, happy family putting this thing on," Swenson said.
The game has raised about $2 million so far for the Shriners hospital, not including what will be raised during a telethon on game day.
The game is scheduled to start at 7 p.m. on June 19 at Daylis Stadium in Billings located at 401 Grand Ave. MTN News will carry the game across the network statewide.
For information on tickets, more history about the game and more about the patient ambassadors stories, visit the Montana East-West Shrine Game website by clicking here.