Dave Collins isn’t afraid to cry.
It’s not that he cries that’s impressive, although to see him, burly and bearded, in a plaid work shirt and cowboy hat, you might be surprised that he cries. No, what’s impressive is how he cries. It brings to mind a sun shower, those rare and magical instances where rain falls from a sunny sky. It’s an arresting juxtaposition.
The tears are not secret. They roll freely from the corner of his eyes and down his cheeks. He’ll wipe them away. He’s not ashamed.
The impressive part is his voice; it doesn’t waiver. If you weren’t sitting in front of him, you’d likely never know that he was crying. It seems more common for a person to have his body racked by the typical thunderstorm of emotion, where all else must yield until the storm has passed.
Not so with Dave. It’s strangely beautiful, as if you’re seeing something that you’re not supposed to see. His voice maintains, clear and resonant. His tears are like a completely separate phenomenon. It’s like rain on a sunny day.
His ability to cry freely but remain in control can only be considered an asset. In November, Dave and his wife, Kristina, started a chapter of Compassionate Friends, a global non-profit organization that provides a support network for families who’ve lost a child. They could start such a chapter because they’d suffered such a loss, and after seeing firsthand the power of such a network, they wanted to contribute to it from Wyoming.
On March 7, 2014, an early morning icy road and bad luck took David Winchester Collins from his family. A Dodge three-quarter-ton work truck crashed into Kristina’s Oldsmobile Alero after she’d lost control of it on Adon Road. A Campbell County Sheriff’s Office corporal described it as a “significant impact” at the time. He was only 3 years old.
“The moral of the story, growing up in Wyoming, is cowboy up or suck it up,” Dave said. “That’s what we thought we were going to do. It would have been roughly four days after we lost him, we realized real quick that we needed to talk to other parents who’d been there to see what a common ‘normal’ is.”
Nobody knew what to say, not family and friends, not church members and neighbors.
“There’s the people that don’t know how it’s going to go, but they’re going to ask you anyway,” Dave said. “Then there’s the people, ‘Well, you had the funeral, looks like you guys believe in God, now it’s time to move on.’ The person that’s telling you it’s time to move on, they have no clue, not an iota. It’s not as simple as the flick of a switch.”
Dave was battling what he called “tunnel vision”: an unending drive to take care of one task after another, to keep himself busy, to keep marching on.
But in the rush to stay busy, some things were neglected.
“I wasn’t working on our marriage,” Dave said.
Then someone mentioned Compassionate Friends. The organization was founded in England in the late 1960s and came to the United States in 1972. It is a self-help support organization, offering friendship, understanding and hope to families grieving the death of a child of any age, from any cause. The U.S. organization has 600 chapters and a presence in all 50 states.
“We contacted them, and that was a major blessing for the fact that, all of a sudden, we had a network of other parents who were there to support grieving parents,” Dave said. “That did a tremendous amount of help for us.”
Their advice may have seemed simple, but it needed to come from people who knew of which they spoke.
“Take a break, sit down with each other, talk with each other, and drink a lot of water,” Dave recalled that first couple telling them.
That phone call was transformational.
“As soon as we hung up, that’s when I knew this is one of the blessings that will come out of the loss of little Dave,” Dave said.
Time to pay it forward
Not content to merely reap the benefits of the Compassionate Friends network, Dave wanted to pay forward the comfort he’d felt when he needed it most.
“In 2016, I had made up my mind that now’s the time,” Dave said. “I felt guilty. I felt like it should have been earlier. But I don’t feel like I was personally far enough along to help others so much.”
He began, with Kristina’s help, to participate on the other side of the Compassionate Friends network; he was now the called, not the caller.
He was initially a contact on the Casper chapter’s list, but the couple wanted to branch out this past November. Their new chapter’s name — Compassionate Friends from the Big Horns to the Black Hills — sums up what they’re about. They didn’t want it to be just Gillette.
“Even Compassionate Friends, when they initiated our chapter, they said, ‘That is a very wide expanse,’” Dave recalled. “I said, ‘That’s exactly what we want.’”
Now, the setup is deceptively simple. The Collinses are just a phone call away, no matter the time of day. If they miss a call, they’ll return it within 12 hours. Then it becomes a matter of consistently checking in on the family, offering a patient ear or a helping hand.
Each situation is different. Each caller is unique.
Dave and Kristina saw that in themselves. Each grieved and coped in their own ways and progressed at their own speeds. While Dave felt he was behind when he started in 2016, Kristina said she didn’t feel comfortable talking with other families at that point.
“She was always supporting me in the background,” Dave said. “I mean, literally. She would be with me when I was talking to a couple, but she just didn’t feel like she was comfortable talking and in 2020 was when she made that step.”
Kristina has found her own way of getting the word out about Compassionate Friends.
“People ask me how many kids I have, and I’ll say four,” she said. “They’ll say, ‘Oh, where’s the fourth one?’ I’m like, ‘He’s up in heaven. He passed away when he was 3-and-a-half.’”
Liberty, their daughter, was the only of her children to physically know little Dave, but her other two sons, Justice and Revere, talk of him constantly, she said.
“We put up a roadside memorial where the accident happened,” Kristina said. “Every time we drive by it, we say, “Love you, Davey,” or “Hi, Davey,” so it’s a continuous, good reminder of him. Randomly talking to people about losing Davey and that breaks me into, “We started this Compassionate Friends group, if you happen to know somebody who’s lost a child or down the road something like this happens, feel free to have them call us.’”
They go about their lives, but they stand ready to respond at a moment’s notice.
“I fought fire for the Forest Service,” Dave said. “It reminds me of just that. Always be on the ready, and when it happens, you’ve got to be ready to jump to action.”
He likes to visit with the grieving couples, if the couples are interested. It’s taken Dave to Sheridan, as well as Nebraska, Montana and South Dakota.
“To be truthful, if somebody called me from New York, and they said, ‘I need some help’ and I couldn’t get them help and/or they said, ‘You’re my first contact; I need to talk to you,’ I would pony up and go to New York,” Dave said. “As hard as that would be for me to go to New York, I would go to New York because I simply remember, very vividly, how I felt, how we felt, what we were going through.”
These are not empty promises; there is seemingly no distance too far to travel to deliver a comforting word.
“The biggest reason we’re doing it though is to help others,” Dave said. “Until you’ve walked in those boots, no one has any idea. That’s one of the biggest things a parent can go through in terms of loss. It’s the most unnatural thing. Your kids are supposed to bury you, right? For you to have to bury your child who hasn’t had a chance to fully spread their wings, that’s really hard.”
The sacrifice required to take such phone calls from parents in the depths of despair would be a lot for any person, but when one stops to think about what the Collinses must do each time they take a call — to be certain, it is nothing short of reliving the worst day of their lives — it seems other-worldly.
And that’s because, for them, it is. While Compassionate Friends, as an organization, does not have any religious affiliation, the Collinses are personally motivated by a strong faith.
“The reason we do it is the Lord, for instance, tells you to treat others as you want to be treated,” Dave said. “That’s exactly what we’re doing. It’s nothing more than this is what Jesus would tell us to do. Take care of one another. If someone needs help, help them.”
Dave can see himself in the callers. And that is exactly the point.
He told the story of a family who’d lost a son who was older than little Dave. The family farmed, and the father’s way of coping was to leave the house and spend every minute of the day in the combine.
Dave knew what that felt like. He’d done the same thing. And because he’d done the same thing, he knew the risks.
“At some point, you’re going to crash,” Dave said. “I don’t care how Billy Bad-ass you think you are, you’re going to crash.”
After little Dave's death, Dave built not only his son’s casket but also his headstone. It was made from Colorado sandstone.
Kristina described it in detail, and in describing it, she began to cry.
“It is one-of-a-kind,” Kristina said. “Every side is different. One side has his picture. Another side has a dump truck on it. Another has a Winchester rifle on it. Another has our family poem on it, with a cross on the top.”
Those were the things into which Dave had thrown himself.
“That’s some of the things I did, again, like that father who went to the field,” Dave said. “That’s some of the stuff I jumped on, as soon as I had Kristi and Liberty taken care of and the place taken care of. We started working on his casket. Here we are, but I’ve got a purpose right now. And the same thing for his headstone.”
It’s different for each person, but he recognized himself in that father in the field.
“He’s scrambling to find new ground, new footing,” Dave said of that father. “He was like, ‘I have no idea what’s up and what’s down.’ I said, ‘I can understand that. I can sympathize with that.’ I told him about my experience, and what worked and didn’t work for us. And I shared some of the other experiences the other couples shared with us.”
It's as simple, and as complicated, as that. It remains a work-in-progress.
“We still have days like that, and you will for a long time,” Dave said. “Years and years. There’s still days, I’m not going to kid you, we’re still on our knees. But we learn to live life a little differently.”
Dave struggled with what he calls the “firsts.”
“He would go feed with me,” Dave said of his son. “He would check water with me. If I was outside of the house, he was pretty much with me. What I really struggled with was doing the firsts without him. The first time I fed, there were his boot prints in the mud. That was a gut-wrench, like it’s happening all over again.”
They still happen, he said. Years later, he’s not seen the last of those “firsts.”
Many lessons were learned over time. They come in all shapes and sizes.
“I remember thinking, ‘When he gets bigger, I’m going to teach him to hunt, fish, weld, do all of this,’” Dave said. “And looking back, I regret some of that for the simple fact that none of us knows the future. This could be my last discussion with anybody. I now will stop whatever I’m doing when it’s time to play with the kids and go play with the kids.”
To see Dave interact with his family as a devoted husband and doting father, it’s impossible to say those lessons haven’t found a receptive host. To see Kristina talk about her kids, all four of them, it’s impossible to say that she’s not passing on those lessons every time she gets an opportunity.
Each opportunity to share their story, to help another family in need, is a chance for the Collinses to spread their sunshine far and wide. Even if it brings rain for them personally, they’ve learned that those two things can happen at the same time, and the world can still be a beautiful place.
Campbell County Health officials are preparing for the impending federal mandate that will require employees at all long-term care facilities to receive the COVID-19 vaccine, while bracing for the internal fallout that could accompany it.
The Legacy Living and Rehabilitation Center is expected to receive the formal vaccine mandate guidelines and start acting on them sometime in September. Now administrators are concerned that federal vaccine requirements could come for the hospital next.
“Most likely it will be out of our hands and we’ll have to comply, if we want to keep being able to accept Medicare, which is basically a non-starter to not do that,” said Adrian Gerrits, hospital board chairman at Thursday’s meeting.
He added that a similar federal mandate could be coming for “our entire health system in the near future.”
Earlier this month, President Joe Biden announced that long-term care facilities receiving Medicare and Medicaid funding would have to require their employees to be fully vaccinated against COVID-19.
The specific requirements are still being hashed out between the Centers for Medicare and Medicaid Services and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. CCH is awaiting clear guidelines before making decisions for the Legacy.
“Personally, I’m vaccinated and I would have been vaccinated even without a mandate,” said CCH CEO Colleen Heeter. “Do I highly encourage it? Yes. Our community is a little bit different on that decision.”
Losing Medicare and Medicaid licensure would be a death sentence for CCH and also lead to losing insurers who require facilities have Medicare licensure, Heeter said.
“We will have our hands tied,” she added. “When Biden determines that, the only thing I can do is tell somebody to call him.”
Making matters worse, CCH has been hit with increased COVID-19 hospitalizations and testing demand as its own work force has missed time because of illness.
As of Thursday, CCH had 13 COVID-19 patients, six of whom were in the ICU. Heeter said that 24 CCH employees were out of work with COVID-19.
Interim Chief Nursing Officer Natalie Tucker said that 90% of CCH COVID-19 patients in recent weeks have not been vaccinated.
Unlike the virus surge last fall, some of the patients have skewed noticeably younger, Heeter said, with more people between 20 and 40 years old showing up at the hospital emergency room.
“We’ve really seen some young 20-, 30-year-olds that we have transported due to being on a ventilator, significantly having upper respiratory (issues), shortness of breath, etc.,” Heeter said.
CCH has done more than 1,500 COVID-19 tests in August with about a 30% positivity rate, Tucker said, indicating a high rate of community transmission.
“We’re clearly understaffed … they’re tired, they’re weary and this is one more thing that someone’s going to tell them what to do,” Heeter said of CCH employees. “We believe next is the hospital and any health care facility, probably, serving patients.”
To work or vaccinate
For CCH, the incoming mandates are expected to throw another wrench in its already fraught staffing crisis. While the organization is already short-staffed, it could see more employees leave when the vaccine requirements kick in.
“Does it make us nervous?” Heeter asked. “Absolutely.”
Trustee Sara Hartsaw pointed to the elephant in the room.
“What percentage of employees at the Legacy are likely to quit because of this?” Hartsaw asked at the meeting.
While that remains unclear, administrators said there are early signs that it could lead to employees leaving.
“They’re just downright frightened, Sara,” said Jerry Klein, CCH chief operating officer, about Legacy administrators fearing staff quitting over the vaccine. “Some of their senior leadership nurses have already told Kate (Craig, Legacy administrator), ‘if we have to be vaccinated, we’ll quit.’”
At the time of the August announcement, CCH reported that 33.1% of Legacy employees are fully vaccinated and 34.3% are partially vaccinated, meaning they receive one of two shots needed for full immunity. That number is more than double for residents, with 76.8% fully vaccinated and 78.4% fully and partially vaccinated.
Hartsaw said that she does not have an issue with the vaccinations already required by the health care system, but that the COVID-19 mandate is contrary to the Gillette ethos.
“I think that our population thinks for itself,” she said.
During the meeting, Hartsaw asked whether the vaccine could have played a role in forging new mutations, such as the delta variant, which has coursed through the country this summer.
“I don’t think that information is known,” Hartsaw said. “The variants will continue. It’s not going away. It’s if we can manage it or not.”
Chief Medical Officer Dr. Attila Barabas said that the there is not evidence to suggest that the vaccine is driving mutations.
“Most of these (viruses) tend to go to less virulent and less destructive, so to speak, because you don’t want to destroy an entire population, the virus goal is not necessarily designed to do that,” said Barabas. “But there’s also data that shows that past exposure to similar viruses do help with exposure to new variants. We also know that the vaccine itself does have some protective effect to different variants, even the newer ones.”
Without a federal mandate, Heeter said that CCH would likely not have implemented one on its own. UCHealth, who CCH recently affiliated with, required all of its employees to become fully vaccinated in July. As a UCHealth employee, Heeter is required to be vaccinated, but the UCHealth decision did not apply to CCH otherwise.
“It is devastating and I do believe that we would probably breeze through with letting people choose if it didn’t come to a mandate,” Heeter said. “And I think we still would, if it doesn’t come to the hospital side. We’ll have to see what the language is on the long-term care.”
Trustee Alan Stuber said he appreciated administrators getting the information out ahead of time, so that employees would have time to think through the decision to vaccinate or find work elsewhere.
“At the end of the day, they’re going to have make a very hard decision on whether they continue to be employed to help support their family or terminate their position,” Stuber said. “That’s a very, very difficult decision and one I hope a lot of people don’t have to make.”
In three years, more than 50,000 people, most of them kids, will descend upon Gillette for the International Pathfinders Camporee.
Camporee representatives have been working with local officials to let them know what exactly the event needs in order to run smoothly, from use of the many sports facilities to the construction of an amphitheater.
The group’s leaders also have done a lot of community outreach to prepare Gillette for the event, which will be a disruption in residents’ daily lives for a week.
They have warned people already that an event that size will strain normal, everyday activities for residents — things as mundane as going to the grocery story. Be prepared, they have said, warning residents to be prepared to stock up on groceries in advance of the huge event.
Camporee Director Ron Whitehead, who visited Gillette this week for more planning meetings, likened it to having guests at your home for a week: You’re glad when they arrive and glad when they leave.
In the meantime, the economic boost to the community is immense, even if it means temporary inconveniences.
When the Camporee comes to Gillette in August 2024, it’s expected to draw at least 50,000 people and bring in $25 million in economic impact.
“Hotels will be full, a lot of our businesses will be short on supply, law enforcement will have a lot more traffic,” said David King, Campbell County Emergency Management Coordinator.
But it will just be for a week.
‘This is the right spot’
An event of this magnitude requires immense preparation. King will soon begin having quarterly meetings with dozens of stakeholders and agencies for contingency planning and “consequence management.”
“My job is to run around saying the sky may fall some day, so people are prepared if the sky falls,” he said.
He’s got more than three dozen agencies and nearly 70 people signed up for a virtual meeting in September, including city and county departments, representatives from state agencies and emergency management coordinators from surrounding counties.
Weather is a big concern. Camporee asked for weather data for Campbell County for the last 20 years. And King’s been talking to the National Weather Service about having a meteorologist in Gillette the week of Camporee.
“This intimidates me,” he said. “I’ve never been involved in an event of this scale.”
Whitehead has visited Gillette 17 times, and 10 of those times, he’s brought along groups of people.
Although Gillette was selected by a unanimous vote by Camporee’s executive advisory board, made up of more than 50 people, Whitehead said there are still many within the organization that are skeptical that a community of this size can handle and support what will basically be a second city.
But he said that every time he brings a group to Gillette and they see it for themselves, they all say, “‘Yup, this is the right spot, this is the right place.’”
One thing that made Gillette an attractive spot for the Camporee was that it’s a community that prioritizes its youth, Whitehead said, from the numerous recreation facilities around town to organizations like the YES House.
The Camporee will be bringing tens of thousands of kids to Gillette, and they’re going to need a lot of activities to keep them busy during the day.
That means parts of the Recreation Center will be closed to the public that week.
During a county Parks and Recreation board meeting with commissioners Monday, recreation superintendent Adam Gibson said the group earlier this year had asked then-director Rick Mansur if the Rec Center could be shut down to the public during Camporee. Mansur said no, because hundreds of residents come through there every day.
“We won’t let (Camporee) use the whole facility, but they want to be able to steer those kids in the right direction, and want to have some separation between the public and kids for safety reasons,” Commissioner D.G. Reardon said.
Reardon has been in contact with Camporee, and he said while the group has been good to work with, the county must find a balance between fulfilling their requests and not putting the Rec Center in a bad position.
Gibson said what was agreed upon was that Camporee would have exclusive use of the Field House, teen locker rooms and the three basketball courts from 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. the week of the Camporee, as well as exclusive use of the pools from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
They won’t have access to the weightlifting area and the upstairs portion of the Rec Center, but those are closed off to kids without parental supervision anyway.
Mansur gave many tours to the Camporee folks before he retired, and Gibson said he goes over the verbal agreement each time they’re at the Rec Center, just so they know what they can use and what’s off-limits.
The Rec Center plans to end Kids Camp a week early so that the Field House will be available for Camporee, Gibson said.
It hasn’t been finalized in writing, and Reardon told Gibson and Parks and Rec Director Dwayne Dillinger to do what they believe is best for the public.
“They’re going to ask for the moon,” Reardon said. “That doesn’t mean we have to give them the moon.”
Reardon said Camporee hopes to use Gillette College, including the soccer field and the Pronghorn Center, as well as the Energy Capital Sports Complex. And Whitehead said he’s been talking to the school district about using some of its fields.
Besides recreation, there will be a lot of community service going on. Every day, for five days, 5,000 kids will be doing projects around town — 2,500 in the morning and 2,500 in the afternoon. That is done to teach the kids that “it’s not about you all the time,” Whitehead said.
“Wherever you go in life, you need to do good for the community too,” he said.
Another thing Camporee has asked for is an amphitheater to be built at Cam-plex Park to hold its nightly gatherings.
Reardon said Tony Knievel, county surveyor for Public Works, is working on a final summary sheet with maps and drawings. Once that plan is approved, the project can begin to move forward.
It will require some dirt work, some seeding and installing an irrigation system to get the grass to grow, Reardon said.
Knievel spoke with Camporee representatives and came up with a plan that will affect as few trees as possible, and none of the park’s memorial trees will be disturbed, Reardon said.
Cam-plex also would take back the lot that the amphitheater will be built on, and it also will be responsible for the maintenance on the land. A few years ago, Cam-plex transferred the park land to the county.
The city and county will split the capital costs 50-50, Reardon said, and the maintenance costs will be budgeted for by Cam-plex.
Parks officials worried that the event would shut down Cam-plex Park to the public for that week.
“It’d be nice if there were some way to keep at least the west half of the park open,” Dillinger said.
He said there were some people who were concerned about the park being closed.
“So they have concerns about closing it for an evening?” Reardon asked.
“We were told it would be closed for the whole thing,” Dillinger said.
Parks superintendent Kevin Geer wondered if the amphitheater was going to be fenced off, either with temporary or permanent fencing.
The goal for the amphitheater is that it can be used in the future to host other large events besides Camporee.
“Are we going to have to shut down the park for every one of those?” Geer asked.
Reardon said it’s too early in the process to decide whether the park will be shut down.
“That’s something we’ll definitely want to talk about in the future, but let’s get the event going, make some money off of it, and then have some money to reinvest back into (the land),” he said.
“It’s hard for us to comprehend that many people for a week,” Commissioner Rusty Bell said, adding that if one side of the park has to be closed for that time, “it’s not a big deal,” since the park will be open for the rest of the year.
If the park does have to be closed for that week, Reardon said the county has three years to give people a heads up.
“We’re talking about 50,000 people for a week,” he said. “(We have to decide the) value of keeping it open for a week for 50 people, or closing it for 50,000 people. It’s a huge tax incentive for us.”