The Ella J. Heisey Memorial was born through the philanthropy of a wholesale grocer, Charles E. Heisey in 1936. Situated near St. Ann’s Cathedral on the corner of 7th Street North and 3rd Avenue North, the Heisey Memorial past and present, has been a facility designed for the youth of Great Falls.
The Heisey was constructed in 1936, solely on more than $60,000 donated by Charles Heisey in loving memory of his wife Ella.
Charles, who died in 1939, was a prominent wholesale grocer whose company flourished for more than 50 years before it was dissolved after his death.
Charles also established a foundation which annually distributes scholarships to graduating high school students who have shown substantial improvement in scholarship, citizenship and effort.
Shortly after the Heisey opened, boxing was introduced and material which the American Legion had used for professional boxing was borrowed. Later the material was reconstructed into a knock-down ring which the Heisey used for several years.
August, 1939, the cost per participant, per year, for all of the activities was $.12 (twelve cents).
The Great Falls Diocese operated the Heisey Memorial until the early 1960’s when it fell into disuse because of lack of money and supervision. Containing handball courts, a full-size basketball court, stage, bowling alleys and other facilities, the building came into focus with the diocese again after Great Falls Central High School closed.
Father Gary Kabeary, former director of finance and athletics at GFCHS, was given the task to bring the building back. The object, said Father Kabeary, “is to provide a point of contact for the kids.”
The existing facilities were completely remodeled and a steam room, universal gym and wrestling mats were added. The diocese provided the money for the renovation, equipment and supplies. Father Kabeary’s task, now that the first phase was complete, was to raise enough money to meet a $41,000 yearly budget. He said the Heisey Memorial will not be just a place for Catholics to gather, “We intent for this to be a city-wide facility and program. This includes Malmstrom Air Force Base residents and a great deal of our volunteer staff comes from the base.”
Governing the facility will be a 16 member board of directors. Two of the members were youths from Great Falls High and C.M.Russell high schools. In addition, a teen council was established to be a laision between the board and the young people. Interested laymen, clergymen of all faiths and others comprised the board in addition to the teen-agers.
Part of the money needed to meet the budget was raised through moderate membership fees for both youth and adults. Father Kabeary continued with plans for handball, racquetball and basketball clinics, judo and karte classes, a wrestling program for the youth, weightlifting programs, and arts and crafts for youth and adults.
Father Kabeary had two full-time supervisors, Jerry Sepich and Gary Swartz plus a part-time office person helping him with the operation of the Hesiey.
The staff of the Heisey wanted the facility to be more that just an athletic club. They were counting on the youthful membership to help achieve that goal. “Having worked with young adults, it’s exciting to see how generous they can be with their time and talents…,” Father Kabeary said. “We are hoping the Heisey will become an avenue for them to not only help themselves, but to help others too.” As for memberships, he added: “No one will be turned away.”
The 80’s brought 4-H programs to the Heisey, macramé, wood working, crocheting, embroidery, just to name a few. Also dance was introduced to the stage of the Heisey. Waltz, Fox Trot, Swing and Jitterbug dance classes were offered. 1982, the Heisey was involved with Montana Junior Rodeo and the Great Falls Saddle Club. Over 150 cowboys and cowgirls, ages 8-18 competed in such events as bull riding, bareback, saddle bronc, calf roping, pole bending, barrel racing, goat tying and team roping. “Little they may be, but there’s nothing little about the pride, determination and just plain guts of these cowboys and cowgirls.” – Unknown. 1983 Jerry Sepich was selected to be the Executive Director position at the Heisey.
The Great Falls Park and Recreation Department and the Heisey Youth Center teamed up to bring the Hershey National Track and Field meet to Great Falls. Winners at the local meet advanced to the state level and state winners were eligible for selectioin to the Pacific Northwest Regional team that went to the national finals in Hershey, PA.
The Heisey gymnasium received a new $44,000 floor in 1997. In addition the organization purchased new equipment and installed new windows over the next few years.
In 2002, Kirby Crosley was hired as the Executive Director of the Heisey Youth Center. Crosley was a fixture of the Heisey for over 25 years. Kirby was hired in 1981 as a part-time desk clerk, then recreation supervisor, program director and finally Executive Director. In 2006 the Heisey fell victim to embezzlement. Crosley was responsible for stealing over $150,000 from the Heisey. However with the dedication of the Board of Directors the Heisey was able to move forward.
In 2003 the sounds of metal weights clanging and Special Olympic athletes grunting could be heard throughout the entire facility. In the basement of the Heisey, many Special Olympic teams have prepared for the powerlifing event. The confident Speical Olympic teams still come to the Heisey for training.
September, 2006, the Heisey hired a new Executive Director with vast non-profit experience, Ann-Margaret Periman. Periman was the Director until April, 2009. This brings us to Sandra Fermo who was hired in May, 2009 to continue the mission of the Heisey Youth Center in the Great Falls community as the Executive Director.
Fermo has several years experience in business, marketing and management. Sandra has owned her own business, been the vice president of two Montana businesses and is dedicated to the Heisey Youth Center and it’s continuation of providing recreational opportunities for the youth of Cascade County.