Mikelle Schmit stared at the pile of transparent plastic bags that has only grown taller and wider since May. She inhaled the humid garage air and exhaled relief that she still has more than a month to meet her goal.
Next to the hill of bagged and rubber-banded pairs of shoes as tall as her, more gently used sneakers, sandals and boots sat in a separate, smaller pile waiting to be sorted.
There are about 12,600 pairs in all.
“It’s insane,” she said about the Herculean collection effort.
But for those who incorrectly and categorically define insanity as repeating the same actions again and again in anticipation of different results, understand that this is not the case for Mikelle and her husband, Josh.
They are open to and have tried just short of everything when it comes to fundraising for their upcoming adoption, which could cost in the neighborhood of $50,000.
Now they have turned to a shoe drive to help reach their adoption fundraising goals. Through Shoes With Heart, a Florida-based organization, the Schmits have through August to amass 25,000 shoes. Once that goal is met, the organization will pick them up in exchange for $10,000 to go toward adopting the couple’s first child.
Shoes With Heart sends the shoes to developing nations like Haiti and parts of Latin America and Africa, where they help boost local economies. They can be resold, given away or used to make other things. The organization calls it an evolution of repurposing things as “reusing with a purpose.”
The Schmits’ latest effort to make their adoption happen has turned their garage into a shoe warehouse. Before that they sold T-shirts, hot chocolate bombs during the holidays and even ran an Easter egg-related side hustle to cover the fees and expenses that come with adopting a child.
“The cost is a huge barrier for a lot of people,” Mikelle said.
But coming from a family where adoption was the norm, the idea of starting her own family the same way has been a long time in the making.
It’s in the family
When Mikelle was growing up, she always knew that she wanted to start a family of her own through adoption. She and her biological sister, Jes Hallock, were joined by two adopted brothers when they were kids.
Her mother, Karlene Hallock, also had always wanted to adopt since she was a child. That same idea of family — namely, that you don’t have to share blood to share a bond — was passed on to Mikelle.
T.J., who is now 26, first joined the family from South Korea as a baby when Mikelle was 6. Then came Luke, now 19, a few years later.
Both grew up and still live in Gillette as part of the family.
“To me, that’s very natural to add a family member that way,” she said.
Seven years ago on her their first date, Mikelle shared with Josh her interest in starting her family one day through adoption, as opposed to the more traditional route.
While that may be a lot of information to soak in on any date, let alone the first, Josh accepted the idea, but wanted some time to consider it.
“He came back and said, ‘I don’t need my kids to look like me to love them,’” Mikelle said.
They are now in the process of a domestic transracial adoption. If all goes as planned, they could adopt their first child next spring.
“I’m finding more and more that with transracial adoption, it’s more than just about what you’re open to, but also how you’re going to bring your child’s heritage and culture into the aspect as well,” Mikelle said.
Having grown up in a white family in a white community with two non-white brothers, Mikelle believes Gillette is a good place to raise that kind of blended family and said it’s even better now than when she and her brothers were growing up.
The mantra Josh adopted regarding adoption on their first date is still true for both.
“We don’t need our kid to look like us to love him,” she said.
But before they can meet their future child, they have about 12,000 more pairs of shoes to track down.
Stacking ’em up
When he left on the nearly seven-hour drive east to Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Josh questioned if he should be dragging a trailer along.
The life of a used shoe purveyor was still new to him. As recently as a year ago, hauling a truck and empty trailer across state lines to pick up used shoes wasn’t exactly in his cards.
Yet there he was. Alone in the cab of his truck, wondering if he was going to be hauling a near-empty trailer back to Campbell County. But one stop in Sioux Falls and 1,000 pairs of shoes later, Josh had the bed of his pickup, its backseat and the trailer all filled with a variety of footwear.
Josh even made it back before the odor of all that used footwear got too stinking bad.
“If you let them sit in there, especially in this heat for a few days, it definitely gets to smelling,” he said.
Even a few months ago when the call for donations started going out, Josh wasn’t sure 25,000 pairs was a realistic goal.
“I told her it was going to be impossible to start with,” Josh said. “I’m like ‘Twenty-five hundred? I can see that. Twenty-five thousand? That’s another story.’”
But Mikelle, acutely aware of the indirect effects of American consumerism and excess, believed otherwise.
“Americans have a lot of shoes,” she said.
So far, shoes have arrived in their garage from all over. Collections have been picked up and even mailed to them from other parts of Wyoming, Montana, South Dakota and Nebraska.
As the donations came pouring in, the Schmits realized both how capable the region was of fulfilling their fundraising requirements, as well as just how much space 25,000 pairs of shoes actually takes up.
When they get a carload dropped off, it’s usually about 100 pairs. While that is a lot of straps and soles by most standards, it’s still a deceptively small part of the grand total for as much space as it fills.
At just over the halfway mark of their goal, it’s hard to imagine that mass of sneakers growing any wider or taller.
Until it does.
“People just keep coming out of the woodwork (with donations),” Mikelle said.
One of those people is Christy Stauffacher, who had never met Mikelle before seeing a video she posted on a Facebook page for the fundraiser.
In the video that gained several thousand views, Mikelle appealed to the social media abyss to bring her used shoes for her future adoption.
Stauffacher cried and watched the video three times before reaching out to help.
“I felt something that I can’t explain to you, but I knew I had to help,” she said. “It turned out to be something really fun. They are great. They are such a great couple.”
Now she runs around town picking up donations from various drop-off sites throughout Gillette. She and her husband even bag the pairs of shoes in their own garage before taking them to the main pile, saving Mikelle and Josh an extra step.
This year during Sleepy Hollow Days — a neighborhood yard sale that happens in Stauffacher’s subdivision — she handed out flyers for the shoe drive and contacted all of her neighbors running garage sales.
In the process she gathered 1,000 pairs.
“I’m so ready to just make that pile twice as big,” Stauffacher said.
It’s almost like the bigger the mound of laces and leather grows, the smaller the garage gets.
Before the pile got out of control, Josh stored a boat in there. But it just kept getting pushed closer and closer to the edge of the garage until eventually docking outside.
“I was working on a boat then the shoes took over and flushed it clean outside,” Josh said. “Yeah, there ain’t no room for both.”
There may not be space for boats, trucks or mowers anymore, but an expecting family has to have its priorities. Before clearing out space for a nursery, they’ll have to find room for the next load of shoes.
“I think that people want to be a part of something good,” Mikelle said.
Given the number of strangers who have already donated from across the country — and the countless others who wore and gave away the shoes building up in the Schmit household — so far, that’s proven true.
Wyoming Horse Racing has filed a lawsuit against 307 Horse Racing, alleging that the Campbell County-based live horse racing operator intentionally interfered with Wyoming Horse Racing’s contract with Cam-plex.
WHR’s attorneys claim that 307 Horse Racing “colluded with the Cam-plex to specifically block those dates and prevent the Cam-plex from honoring its contractual obligations to WHR,” which led to WHR having to shut down its off-track betting location in Gillette.
There is no clear timetable on if or when off-track betting could reopen at Wyoming Horse Racing and Wyoming Downs. Both closed after 307 was granted an exclusive contract with Cam-plex.
There are indications that there may be efforts to open up the bar portion of the locations, but it could be months or even years before historic horse racing machines are up and running again.
Boot Hill Nightclub has been approved as an off-track betting site for 307 Horse Racing. No opening date has been scheduled for this location.
In the lawsuit, Wyoming Horse Racing also accuses 307 of working with the Campbell County Commission “to further damage” Wyoming Horse Racing with a resolution that was passed April 20. The resolution gives the live horse racing operator control over off-track betting and simulcasting in the county. It also allows that written permission for simulcasting and off-track betting can be given to groups that aren’t putting on live horse races.
Because 307 Horse Racing has an exclusive five-year contract with Cam-plex to run live horse races, it is essentially the only operator with the authority to run off-track betting in Campbell County.
The suit had originally been filed in the 6th Judicial District Court, but it has since been reassigned to District Judge F. Scott Peasley in the 8th Judicial District. It is the third lawsuit that has been filed in response to the live horse racing and OTB situation in the county, and the first that directly involves 307 Horse Racing.
Wyoming Horse Racing’s attorneys claim 307 “disparaged” Wyoming Horse Racing and “shared false and misleading information” with Cam-plex. As a result, Wyoming Horse Racing lost the ability to run local live races, which led to it closing its OTB location in Gillette, which “has cost, and will continue to cost, WHR substantial lost revenue and other related damages.”
Wyoming Horse Racing and Wyoming Downs filed two civil actions, one asking for a declaratory judgment and another asking the court to delay the enactment of the resolution.
In May, Peasley made a decision on the declaratory judgment, saying that the commissioners did not exceed their statutory authority and jurisdiction in passing the resolution.
No decision has been made on the stay of the resolution. As a result, Wyoming Downs’ two locations in Gillette, as well as Wyoming Horse Racing’s Horse Palace, have been closed since May 22, and there is no scheduled date for when they could reopen.
307 Horse Racing took action to “induce the Cam-plex to breach its contract with WHR, refuse to negotiate or do business with WHR, and to enter into an exclusive contract with 307 for horse racing,” attorneys wrote in the complaint.
From September 2015 through June 2019, Wyoming Horse Racing put on 30 days of live racing at Cam-plex. It paid the events facility more than $300,000 in lease payments and more than $1.5 million in purses to horse owners.
Wyoming Horse Racing was ready to run live races at Cam-plex in 2020, but because of the COVID-19 pandemic was unable to. In April 2020, it asked Cam-plex if it could run races later in the year. Cam-plex staff told Wyoming Horse Racing those later dates were available, according to court documents.
An attempt was made to contact 307 Horse Racing, but the company hadn’t responded by press time.
On May 1, Wyoming Horse Racing manager Eugene Joyce signed a contract with Cam-plex to conduct live horse races through 2025. That same day, “instead of honoring the contract and agreement that Mr. Joyce signed,” Cam-plex emailed Wyoming Horse Racing, saying those dates — in August and September — were no longer available.
307 Horse Racing intentionally interfered with WHR’s contract and its economic relationships, attorneys wrote, and Wyoming Horse Racing is seeking “direct, consequential and exemplary damages.”
Let’s try this again.
The Campbell County Commissioners have agreed to formally say “yea” or “nay” again after shooting down a proposed affiliation for management services between Campbell County Health and the large Colorado-based health care system UCHealth by a 3-2 vote last month.
Commissioners are set for another vote on the possible affiliation at their regular meeting July 20.
On Tuesday, CCH administrators, employees and trustees approached the commission to apologize for a lack of communication leading up to that first failed vote while offering to clarify any concerns.
“I, along with the trustees, have realized that we did not do enough to include you in the initial affiliation process and we did not do enough to answer your questions, to help address your concerns that you have now expressed,” said CCH CEO Colleen Heeter during this week’s workshop with commissioners.
Trustee Randy Hite said an affiliation is a way of keeping CCH a step ahead of some broad health care industry trends — including struggles for rural hospitals — as opposed to retreating towards a “hub-and-spoke” model, where local service lines are cut and outsourced, a route other rural hospitals have gone.
“We have to somehow find a way to bridge the gap between the changes that health care is going through and we’re being faced with and trying to provide those critical services in this community,” Hite said.
As outlined over recent months, CCH is hemorrhaging money. It has operated at a loss since 2012, said CCH Chief Financial Officer Mary Lou Tate.
A $21.2 million projected operational loss in this fiscal year is the largest the organization has faced in recent years.
While worrisome, the real concern for the organization is a continued drop of Campbell County’s assessed valuation, which reduces the amount of tax money CCH gets, Tate said.
Revenue from the three mills it gets has dropped from $15.6 million in 2017 to a projected $10.2 million this fiscal year, a $5.4 million decrease, or nearly 35%.
“Obviously, we need to make changes now or we will cease to exist,” Tate said.
With the proposed affiliation, Tate projects a $770,000 annual savings on routine supplies as well as added efficiency through implementing Epic, an electronic medical records system, that would replace CCH’s current cumbersome model.
The six-figure cost savings does not factor in potential savings an affiliation could bring with pharmaceuticals and medical implants, she said.
“We’re just doing our best to make sure that our health care system stays as robust as it possibly can,” Hite said.
Onus on health care
Several health care providers and CCH employees testified to commissioners about the benefits the increased buying power and new electronic health records system could bring to the organization’s physicians and employees.
“It’s hard to put into perspective what Epic or a better (electronic health records system) would mean for providers,” said Chief Medical Officer Attila Barabas.
Using military parlance, he compared the new system to a force multiplier, where the one improved system, used by many employees, would help the entire organization. The current system, Meditech, is more like a boat with holes that keep leaking and grow larger over time, he said.
With Meditech, the various CCH department record systems do not share or communicate with each other, which Barabas said leads to redundant data entry and less efficiency that trickles down to patient care.
“The current EHR can be obstructive, it can get in the way and it makes it harder for us to actually sit there and communicate with our patients without them thinking we’re always paying attention to this computer monitor that’s in our way,” Barabas said.
He also said Epic would make providers more efficient and cut down on physician burnout. That could also help recruit and retain physicians, who would grow frustrated with or outright avoid a health care system with Meditech.
Leigh Johnson, director of oncology at CCH, said that the direct pipeline to physicians in UCHealth would benefit cancer care in Gillette. She named “skyrocketing” medication prices in her field as an expense the affiliation could help offset.
“There are certain chemotherapy drugs that in 2022, we may not be able to even afford to buy,” Johnson said.
But as part of a larger system like UCHealth, volume purchasing power bring some things that would be out of reach for CCH on its own within reach.
Commissioner Del Shelstad questioned what UCHealth stands to gain from the deal, amid all of the benefits CCH expects to receive from the affiliation.
“There’s got to be some money made or they wouldn’t be wanting to do this,” he said.
He asked whether an affiliation would bring an increase in referrals to UCHealth, and if that would in turn hurt other local health care providers.
Barabas said the patients have and will continue to have the option of where they are referred. In general, he said physicians try to keep patients local. As a urologist, when he has to make a referral, he said he gives pros and cons to the patient, but that they ultimately decide.
“We only send patients out if we have to,” Barabas said. “We purposefully keep patients in here as much as possible. I couldn’t see it hurting anyone else, it’s just whether or not a few more referrals end up at UCHealth than otherwise.”
Commissioners Bob Maul, Colleen Faber and Shelstad voted against the affiliation last time. For it to pass, one of their votes will have to change when they vote again July 20.
Some of the feedback received since the first decision was less than pleasant, Maul said.
“I learned some new four-letter words a sailor didn’t know about how I am and what I am from people who are professional enough that it shouldn’t have happened,” he said.
Faber said the public feedback she got was mostly respectful, but that she did have to “cram” before the first vote because of a lack of time and depth of the contract.
“I learned a lot of our public, a lot of them think (the affiliation is) something that it is that it isn’t, and a lot of people think it’s not what a lot of it is,” Faber said.
CCH officials and trustees repeatedly apologized for the lack of commission involvement the first time around.
The commissioners are involved because of a state law that covers memorial hospitals or hospitals owned by county governments. CCH is a special hospital district, which is covered in another section of state law.
But the statute reads that “whenever the board of trustees of a county memorial hospital or special hospital district deems it in the best interests of the county they may, with the approval and consent of the board of county commissioners, lease or enter into a contract for the operation of the hospital with any person, group, association or corporation.”
The board spend years mulling over the prospects of affiliation before UCHealth expressed interest in the last year, said Tom Lubnau, the hospital board’s attorney. Contract work toward an affiliation began in earnest in March.
A near-finished contract was crafted quickly before the first commission workshop in early June, he said.
“I apologize in some respect to you all because you say, ‘What’s in it for UCHealth?’ That’s because through a process of negotiation, we negotiated a lot of that out,” Lubnau said. “So I apologize for bringing you too good of a contract that made you suspicious.”
The sticking point
The affiliation, as currently outlined, would make Heeter a UCHealth employee while continuing to serve as CEO of CCH, something Maul said he still has some “heartburn” about.
Shelstad said he would vote in favor of the affiliation if the contract was negotiated to make Heeter a CCH employee.
Lubau said that while Heeter becoming a UCHealth employee has been non-negotiable, the terms of her employment have been negotiated so that she would effectively remain under control of the elected hospital board.
“The thing that causes you heartburn caused us heartburn too, and that is the employment of the CEO,” Lubnau said. “That was a deal-breaker. So we put as many provisions into that contract to say that our elected board runs the show, not some person that we don’t know from Colorado.”
Between the recent struggles for local industry, the decreased tax base, a shortage of medical professionals “at every level” and competition with other hospitals and health care providers, Lubnau clarified the stakes of the upcoming vote.
“We’re not asking for your approval,” he said. “We’re asking for your help.”