Driving in a school zone between the hours of 7:45 and 8:45 a.m. isn’t usually thought of as a bright spot of someone’s day. It’s often congested with traffic and speeds are reduced as kids cross the street.
But there’s always an exception that proves the rule. In Gillette, the exception is Shoshone Avenue between Highway 59 and 4J Road.
Those who took that daily route during the school year looked forward to those mornings because their commute ultimately went through the intersection at Tanner Drive.
That’s where they found a cheerful, energetic Dianna Flores waving and smiling to every car that passed.
Flores, 67, is the crossing guard for Buffalo Ridge Elementary. And during the final stretch for the Campbell County School District this week as kids counted down the days and hours until summer break, Flores was dreading it a little more each day.
“I know the kids are looking forward to the end of school, but I’m not,” she told a stranger walking along the sidewalk as she marched into the street to stop traffic that wasn’t there. “I like this.”
Keith Chrans, Campbell County School District’s transportation director, said that back in the fall, Flores would call to let his office know whenever a crossing guard wasn’t on duty at the intersection of Shoshone and Tanner. Flores lives just two houses from the corner and can see it out her window.
“Finding crossing guards is difficult sometimes,” Chrans said. “That’s an area we want to keep filled as much as possible.”
The solution soon became apparent.
“So we said, ‘By the way, what are you doing?’” Chrans explained.
Flores agreed to take the job if she could work that one intersection. She went through the standard background check and fingerprinting process and watched training videos, and said the extensiveness of the process surprised her. But it also made her feel better knowing that not just anybody is entrusted with the safety of the district’s young students.
Flores was hired in November, and by April had already been named the transportation department’s employee of the month. Flores has been as watchful of her intersection as a mama bird over a nest of eggs. She quickly became a fixture at intersection with a mood so bright, effusive, bubbly and infectious that total strangers couldn’t help but take notice.
Darci Edwards is one of those who noticed. She didn’t know Flores by name, but she didn’t need to know her name to be inspired by her displays of good cheer and attention to the safety of “her” children.
“At first I thought she recognized my car because I drive by every day, but then you look in the rear view mirror and see that she does it to everyone,” Edwards said.
Edwards doesn’t use the term “everyone” lightly; she means it.
“I’ve been watching her since I kind of started paying attention,” Edwards said. “She doesn’t miss a single car. She doesn’t look down and pretend she doesn’t see a car. She does not miss one car. And I go by there twice a day, so I see it a lot.”
At 3:23 Tuesday afternoon, Flores appeared on the corner of Shoshone and Tanner. As soon as she arrived, there was a line of five cars going by and she waved at them all.
Her afternoon shift had begun.
Her stop sign was tucked under her left arm as her right arm shot up to greet all comers. In one 5-minute span, 53 cars passed in front of her, and 53 times she waved. Some were school buses, and those seemed to get extra enthusiastic waves, as if she knew the kids on board would love it.
All the kids at Buffalo Ridge — those on the bus, those walking on the sidewalks and crossing her intersection and her youngest granddaughter, Olivia Olmedo, a 9-year-old third grader at the school — are the reasons she took the position.
“I enjoy the kids,” Flores said. “I like the interaction. I like knowing they’re going to get there safely.”
She calls it “grandma-ness,” a special sense one develops when she has grandchildren. It’s a heightened sense of purpose, responsibility, genuine care and affection for kids even though “most of them don’t know my name,” she said.
“They just call me ‘Crossing Guard Lady,’” Flores said with a hint of pride, as if “Crossing Guard Lady” might just be her second-favorite title next to “grandma.”
She’s protective of the children who cross at her intersection, and none too fond of impatient motorists who ignore the flashing caution lights.
That’s why she’s there.
“They could run me over and drag me for 50 miles, but don’t hit one of my kids crossing,” Flores said.
Safety is No. 1, but a close second is talking to the kids. But she said the waving is for the parents.
“When I started the waving, I wanted the parents that were driving by to know that their kids were being looked after by somebody who cares,” Flores said. “I think sometimes being friendly shows that you’re caring, as opposed to just standing there like a block.”
The message seems to have been received, loud and clear.
“I feel like they’ve accepted me as someone who really cares for the kids,” Flores said. “(The kids) have gotten to the point where I’m not a stranger. You know, some parents will say, ‘Don’t talk to strangers,’ and I’ll talk to them, but after this time they actually know I’m not a stranger.”
Buffalo Ridge Principal Nate Cassidy loves the example Flores sets.
“She’s a huge part of the kids’ days,” Cassidy said. “She starts their day and ends their day. She starts the kids’ days off on a good first step.”
Much like her waving never skips a beat, her work ethic is unimpeachable.
“She has not missed a shift,” Chrans said. “She does not call in to be gone.”
Cassidy considers her a constant.
“It could be raining, it could be snowing,” he said. “It does not matter. She’s always a ray of sunshine out there regardless of what the Wyoming weather has in store for the day.”
And he knows that positive influence doesn’t stop with just the kids.
“I don’t think there’s a person who can come over Shoshone without smiling and waving,” Cassidy said.
Darci Edwards and her kids certainly can’t. They don’t even go to Buffalo Ridge; they’re students at Sage Valley Junior High.
“They know who she is,” Edwards said. “We look for her. That’s not something you see every day, either. Kids engaging, teenagers pulling their noses out of phones to see if she’s there.”
Edwards likes to use Flores as a teaching moment with her teens.
“It’s been really good to talk to my kids about,” she said. “‘Look at how she makes everybody feel.’ It’s a great place to be able to have a conversation with your kids about how you can go above and beyond to make someone’s day.”
Flores is humbled by the thought of her actions being cited by parents to their kids. But she likes that her example is affecting people so positively. Chrans and the transportation department have received calls raving about her. So has Cassidy at Buffalo Ridge.
“Parents have great things to say,” he said. “Parents call and say, ‘Who is that gal? Just want to let you know she’s doing a great job.’ A lot of times, in a lot of organizations and businesses, people don’t call you to tell you what’s going well.”
Passersby let Flores know they appreciate her more directly, too. She said that she’s received more than 20 gift cards for coffee, more than a dozen cards with well wishes jotted in them and beautiful gift baskets. They pull over to give them to her, but she made it clear that it was off the main street so as not to block traffic.
“I’m a crossing guard,” she said. “I wouldn’t allow that.”
In a short time, Flores has drawn attention to not just herself and the job, but the way the job should be done.
“It’s such a busy intersection and we were really worried to try to find someone who could fill that spot and be very, very reliable,” Chrans said. “She is the model for what we want our safety patrol people to do.”
The school year is over now, and undoubtedly a little part of Flores is sad that she won’t have any more kids to help across the street.
“I look forward to the weekdays,” Flores said. “I really do. Most people look forward to the weekends, but I look forward to the weekdays because I thoroughly enjoy not just walking the kids but starting people’s day off.
“It’s gotten bigger and bigger, and I feel like I’m making a little impact. It’s really nice to feel like it’s a positive thing.”
A person gets out of a job what she or he puts in, the adage goes. Chrans seems to have found one who puts in all that she can, but more than that, one who gives with little thought of herself.
The Campbell County Health board of trustees approved a letter of intent for an affiliation with Colorado-based UCHealth.
The board approved the letter on a 6-1 vote at its meeting Thursday, with Alan Stuber the lone vote against it.
The letter is a formal expression of interest in negotiating an affiliation, not a contract. It is non-binding and is “just to help us have a conversation of what we’re trying to achieve,” said Alison Gee, the board’s attorney.
A potential contract between the entities is still in the draft stage.
UCHealth is a Colorado-based nonprofit health care system that has 25,000 employees and 12 acute-care hospitals staffed with hundreds of physicians.
UCHealth has standing affiliations with two other Wyoming hospitals in Cheyenne and Laramie. Its deal with Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie dates to 2013 and it has been in partnership with Cheyenne Regional Medical Center since 2018.
Grace Taylor, vice president of operations for UCHealth, said the organization doesn’t partner with just anyone.
“We are very careful about who we partner with, because we want the partnership or collaboration to be successful,” she said. “We feel like your organization could be a good fit with our organization.”
Campbell County Health has scheduled a work session with the Campbell County Commissioners on Tuesday to go into more detail on the affiliation.
For more information, visit cchwyo.org/about-us/cch-negotiation-uchealth.
Stuber said that despite all of the talk about keeping patients close to home, UCHealth is quite far away from Gillette.
“There are other great facilities that are a lot closer,” Stuber said, adding that he wants to make sure CCH has “done our due diligence, making sure UCHealth is the right choice, because it is a long ways away.”
UCHealth cannot force a doctor to refer a patient to one of its facilities. That decision remains up to the physician and the patient, said CCH CEO Colleen Heeter.
Stuber also questioned how things would work with Heeter being a UCHealth employee, which will happen if the affiliation goes through.
“I have reservations on exactly what direction our CEO will go when they’re being employed by another hospital. I’m not ready to move on to that next level until questions can be answered,” Stuber said.
Trustee Tom Murphy said he’s confident Heeter “will make the right decision regardless of who’s providing the paycheck.”
Even though Heeter would be a UCHealth employee, she would still report to the CCH board of trustees, said board Chairman Adrian Gerrits, adding that the board does not want to give up control over what health care looks like in Gillette.
“This is really us trying to be strategic about moving forward, with keeping our finances in order as well as helping us be better at what we do,” he said.
Board member Dr. Sara Hartsaw said that in speaking with residents about the potential move, there’s a “high level of concern that this is a giant poaching operation, that once there’s an affiliation with UCHealth, somehow all the patients that need higher levels of care will be forced to go to UCHealth facilities.”
“I think those are all realistic fears, but I think they’re just fears. That’s not been how we’ve dealt with other facilities,” said Dr. Chris Cribrari, a vascular surgeon at UCHealth Poudre Valley Hospital in Fort Collins, Colorado.
“If UCHealth’s intent was to poach patients, they’d give us the middle finger, bring in a clinic and a surgery center themselves,” Gerrits said. “They wouldn’t try to play nice with us and then try to poach our patients. They’d just come in and do it.”
Ivinson Memorial Hospital in Laramie partnered with UCHealth in 2013. Cribari said the only time UCHealth has its physicians in Laramie is when they are asked to come up there.
“We’ve actually raised the bar in the types of things that they’re comfortable caring for there,” Cribari said.
And any patient transfers to UCHealth that come from Laramie are only possible because of the relationship the organizations have developed over the past several years, Cribari said.
“It’s mutual respect,” he said. “We want to be there to support our physicians that are in critical access hospitals, rural hospitals. We don’t want to steal patients from them. We want to be there to support them.”
“We want you to call us first, but we have to earn your trust, and we have to earn that relationship,” Taylor said.
State Rep. Bill Fortner, R-Gillette, worried that this could be an example of a big company coming in, creating a monopoly and causing health care costs to skyrocket.
“I hear Casper is trying to sign onto the same (deal),” he said.
Gerrits explained that the Wyoming Medical Center in Casper was sold to Banner Health, which is a for-profit corporation.
“That is the opposite of what we’re trying to do,” he said.
Fortner said he’s frustrated and disappointed that things have gotten to this point.
“We’re to the point where we’ve got to have an outsider come in and bail us out and help us run our business here?” he asked. “This is the reward we get for dumb spending.”
Heeter pushed back, saying she doesn’t believe “we’ve mismanaged funds.”
Murphy said it is the kind of move CCH needs to make to remain competitive.
And board member Lisa Harry said she sees an affiliation as “an opportunity at this point, not a necessity.”
She said with the future being unknown, it makes sense to do this now to “get ahead of the eight ball.”
“This could be what we need so that we don’t have to resort to other measures where we don’t have choices, where we’re forced to do something that we don’t choose to do,” she said.
Campbell County expects to see more travelers passing through and hopefully spending time in town this summer after the pandemic caused a down tourism season last year,
The uncertain and ever-changing COVID-19 guidelines and restrictions saw many people cancel their summer travel plans last year. But with case counts falling, vaccination rates rising and many states reopening their economies to something resembling pre-pandemic life, an increase in Wyoming tourism may be in the cards.
“People are more confident and we’re seeing a pretty big increase in people coming in for visitation,” said Jessica Seders, executive director of the Campbell County Convention and Visitors Bureau. “We’re expecting a much better summer this year.”
As a measure of tourism traffic, the Convention and Visitors Bureau looks to lodging tax collected, Seders said. Last year, lodging tax revenue was down about 40%.
The lost tourism revenue was not just from traditional vacationers and campers passing through town, but from the restraints put on other businesses in the county. With more remote video meetings and canceled in-person gatherings, the county had fewer overnight stays that usually come through the energy sector and other corporate travel, Seders said.
“We didn’t just lose tourism, but we also lost our overnight stays from the energy industry and business and corporate stays in general,” she said.
Still, Seders said that the wide open spaces, low population and plentiful outdoor recreation options caused the state to feel less of a tourism drainage than other states may have.
“Wyoming definitely fared better than the rest of the country,” she said.
Regional tourism and Wyomingites taking the time to explore their own state also added to the state’s tourism industry.
“We did see a lot of out-of-state travel, but it was a huge bump from regional,” Seders said.
A renewed interest in regional travel along with more out-of-state visitors may be the recipe Wyoming and Campbell County need for a better summer season this year.
Packing the parks
Although tourism was down in Campbell County during a pandemic-dominated 2020, Wyoming state and national parks saw a significant increase in visitation and camping stays.
Nearby Keyhole State Park saw a 26% bump in visitation last year, a jump in volume that Keyhole Superintendent Wade Henderson said he hadn’t seen before.
“If we see an increase, it’s usually about 2% or so,” he said.
The wilderness craze from last year, driven by social distancing and a desire to get away from others, may carry over, Henderson said. But with more general vacation and get-away options available, he expects a little less traffic this year.
“We’re kind of thinking it’s going to be busy, but we don’t feel it’s going to be as busy as last year,” Henderson said.
So far through May, Keyhole has not been as much of a destination as last year, and while camping reservations are still filling up, other than holiday weekends, the park’s ledger is still fairly open.
“Last year, we saw a lot of families and stuff, but we saw more new campers, a lot of people who were first-time campers,” Henderson said.
The park still offers 60 first-come, first-served campsites in addition to the rest of the park, which is reservation-only. Despite the unexpected influx of campers last summer, the park handled it well and didn’t have any issues or problems beyond expected resource uses, Henderson said.
But in case of another big camping season or that last year’s new campers have become regular visitors going forward, he said the park is considering putting in some temporary sites to accommodate overflow.
“It’s a good way to beat the cabin fever of lockdown by getting out in nature,” he said.
While Keyhole is expecting a slight reprieve from 2020, other Wyoming parks are bracing for more visitors.
Yellowstone National Park officials are anticipating between 4.5 million and 4.7 million visitors this summer, which would be a 12% to 17% bump in traffic from 2019, the last full year of park data, as reported by the Wyoming News Exchange.
Visits to Devils Tower between September and April increased by 46% compared to a five-year average of the same period, and park officials expect that to carry into this summer season.
The monument’s Belle Fourche River Campground and picnic area opened May 15.
A statewide campaign called “WY Responsibly” was launched to educate out-of-state visitors and those seeking some Cowboy State-style adventure, but still novice to the outdoors on how to maintain respect and safety toward wildlife and cultures when exploring the state.
Good to know
Some of Devils Tower’s 200-plus rock climbing routes have been temporarily closed in deference to nesting peregrine falcons, which are known to nest on the tower and raise their chicks there each year. For the safety of the birds and climbers, select climbing trails are closed. Their status can be tracked online at nps.gov.
As is done each year, from June 1-30, a voluntary climbing closure is observed out of respect to the Tower’s cultural and spiritual significance. During that time, the park strongly advises visitors not to climb Devils Tower.
For the more than 20 Native American tribes that consider the monument a sacred place, summer is a particularly significant time for tribal ceremonies related to the monument.
With the overcrowded parks last year, booking campsites and making travel plans well in advance is strongly advised. Some of the trailheads and main attractions in parks like Yellowstone also may become packed or run out of nearby parking, making it handy to keep alternative plans and hiking trails in mind.
Fire bans also tend to crop up throughout the summer, depending on the county and climate. It is important to respect fire bans, build fires in established rings when possible and to never leave fires unattended. Having enough water on hand to fully put out the fire and embers before leaving it is an essential fire safety habit.
Reeling ‘em in
Campbell County markets itself as a stop on the Black and Yellow route, or the road from the the Black Hills National Forest to Yellowstone National Park.
This year, Seders said the Visitors Center is making a more focused effort to turn passersby into multi-day visitors to Gillette.
“We have plenty of great amenities here and attractions that could keep people busy for a day or two,” she said.
People call throughout the year to inquire about coal mine tours, which were another casualty of COVID-19 last year. But this year the Eagle Butte mine tours are back on and tours will also be offered at Black Thunder coal mine for the first time.
The Durham Bison Ranch also has been a popular draw throughout the years and continues to be an asset that the county hopes will draw folks to take a detour off of the interstate.
Beyond those activities, Gillette has a soon-to-open splash pad and the Rockpile Museum that Seders hopes travelers will spend time visiting, along with the Frontier Auto Museum.
“We want to encourage our locals to invite their families and friends to vacation and spend time in our community,” Seders said. “If we all brought in friends and family, we could have a great tourism season this year.”