To arrive at Mallo Camp, a tucked-away gem in the westernmost edges of the famed Black Hills and less than 2,000 feet away from the South Dakota state line, is to be invited to forget. Forget the distractions of the world when cellular service drops away. Forget the trappings of modernity and embrace a return to nature. Forget that for weeks a year, the camp is essentially one big science classroom.
This year marks the 40th year of Mallo Camp, the overnight science camp opportunity offered to all Campbell County School District fifth graders. The years don’t match the number of camps though; there are only 39 candles on this particular birthday cake. COVID-19 robbed last year’s fifth graders of this rite of passage, and it won’t be until the spring, when the district’s agreed to allow the now-sixth graders their Mallo Camp experience a year late, that it can truly earn that 40th candle.
On the Thursday of the district’s final week of camp, students from the three P’s — Paintbrush, Pronghorn and Prairie Wind — enjoyed the return to normalcy that afforded them the opportunity to not only learn about scientific concepts out in wild but also experience the joys of camp life.
It was 10:10 a.m., and the students had just begun their second lesson of the day (and fifth lesson of camp). They’re divided into groups of about 15; the groups themselves are labeled A through I. Group D was doing the lesson known as Art in Nature, taught by Prairie Wind’s art teacher, Cody Smith.
Just outside of the Main Lodge, the building that serves as the camp’s headquarter, Smith’s group is exploring a small thicket of trees along the banks of a small creek. The students have disappeared into the thicket; only small pops of colors can be seen through the limbs and leaves and voices can be heard.
“How far down can we go?” one student called out. Smith encouraged them to stay close.
“We’re just collecting a few things, a few items from nature, and then we’re going to use this light sensitive paper, put a light on it, and then create a silhouette,” he said. “It’s kind of like old-school developing photos but not.”
“What I’m trying to get them to do is to look deeper into nature, not just kind of ignore it,” Smith said. “We walk by trees all the time, but we never really look deep at it.”
After a few minutes, he called the students back to him.
“Make sure you get like five, six, seven items that look really interesting to you,” Smith said.
“Do we get to keep some of the items?” one girl asked from the depths of the group that was circling up around him.
He told her sure, as if it had never really occurred to him that they’d want to keep the items.
The last student back to the building was Ryan Wichert, a Pronghorn fifth grader. His hands were full of nature.
“A pine cone, a leaf, and some more leaves,” Ryan said. “That one looks like that shape on the cards.” He meant a spade; the leaf of this bright green plant did, in fact, look like the face of an ace of spades.
“And this one has holes in it.”
That’s it. That’s all it had taken for this plant to fulfill Smith’s mandate: It was interesting to him.
In a nutshell, that is the beauty and purpose of Mallo Camp, distilled down to compact symbolism: It had put nature into the hands of a student, captivated his attention for a moment, and, when all was said and done, would teach him a lesson.
More than just a science camp
Pronghorn Principal Clay Cates, though he was not specifically thinking about the Art in Nature group, echoed Smith’s project for the art students.
“I think it’s just the beauty of the outdoors,” Cates said while trying to sum up all of the benefits and possibilities of Mallo Camp for the students. “They learn stuff about nature and the environment that’s maybe a little different, they haven’t had total exposure to that in the classroom. It’s all tied to the classroom.”
Over his shoulder, another session was diving deep into meteorological concepts, specifically the water cycle. Students were scattered between multiple picnic tables, vying for tabletop space in which to draw pictures in their field journals.
The teacher leading the meteorology lesson was discussing the concept of transpiration, the process by which plants release water from their leaves. She made it relatable by comparing it to something a bunch of fifth graders could appreciate.
“Did you guys know that plants sweat?” she asked them.
Murmurs, chatter, all with a surprised, “No-I-did-not-know-that” tone.
“What’s a good picture that we could draw to show transpiration?” the teacher asked once the chatter died down a bit.
“A plant with sweat on it,” a girl said.
The teacher was walking around, listening to ideas, giving suggestions, nodding encouragingly the whole time. “Our last group kept saying that we should just give it some deodorant,” the teacher said.
Cates made the case that it was more than just the science lessons, though.
“It’s just that acclimation to being outdoors,” Cates said. “It’s just a beautiful place. They’re in the water, getting bugs. A girl caught a fish yesterday. She was so excited, and everybody’s looking at it. It was a little teeny trout.”
His voice, in the telling of those simple anecdotes alone, could have made a believer out of a doubter; if someone needed convincing of the merits of Mallo Camp, including but not limited to justifying the costs, the resources, the effort needed to pull if off, Cates’s conviction was revelatory. This year was his 11th trip to the camp, and he said there was no equal when it comes to activities offered by the district.
That’s why last year’s disruption due to COVID-19 was so unfortunate, he said.
“It’s kind of a community loss because I think a lot of parents value it, know it, maybe some of the older siblings got to do it or even the parents got to do it as a kid,” Cates said. “A lot of parents would be in that 40 years. I think it’s kind of a community loss. Parents feel like, ‘Oh man, my kid didn’t get to go, and that’s kind of a bummer.’”
There’s no replacement for the experience. Hopefully, he said, the pandemic will remain controlled enough to allow the district’s sixth graders to make up for their missed trip last year.
“It’s just an experience that you get to be away from home, and for a lot of these kids, it’s their first time away from home,” Cates said. “So we’ve kind of got to battle a little homesickness and you kind of cheer them up a little bit. They eat well, they get seconds. Last night, we had cheesecake, and a lot of them were like, ‘Mr. Cates, I’ve never had cheesecake. I like it!’ It’s all homemade stuff back there.”
With those words, he jerked a thumb in the direction of the Main Lodge, where the kitchen was located. Inside that kitchen, amid the sweet smells of freshly baked churros and cinnamon sugar, was one of the most-consistent presences in all of Mallo Camp.
‘The best little restaurant in the middle of nowhere’
Gail Belmont has been the camp cook since 1983. She began at Mallo Camp just two years after the camp itself was started, and last year’s missed camp due to COVID-19 was the only time in all those years that Belmont hadn’t cooked for the hordes of children and teachers.
“The first year I came (to Mallo Camp), my son came (as a student),” Belmont said. And next spring, when those sixth graders make their trip to the camp a year late, her first great-grandson will be attending. COVID-19 had deprived him of Mallo Camp, and with his great-grandmother being such a fixture of the place, he knew exactly what he was missing.
Each week of camp will see roughly 50 adults and 150 students, she said. Belmont even remembered some weeks that saw 180 kids at a time. But the kids always get their fill and then some.
“My husband always says when I get home, ‘You’re not cooking for an army!’” Belmont said with a laugh. “It takes me a while to get back down to a normal-sized dinner after working here.”
Though she worked for the district for a long time before retirement, she’d never actually worked as a cook. Yet decades of Mallo Camp’s home-cooked meals have come at her hands. The reviews have always been raves.
She remembered one in particular. Years ago, a teacher had her go out to a little boy.
“He has something he wants to tell you,” the teacher told her.
“He goes, ‘This is the best little restaurant in the middle of nowhere that I ever ate at,’” Belmont said.
Gun safety and lessons for life
Based on Belmont’s veteran knowledge, it was soon apparent that the gun safety activity station was one not to be missed. Kids loved it, she said.
On the way to the gun safety area, one first would have to walk across a footbridge that crossed a small creek, the same creek around which Smith’s art students had explored earlier in the morning.
Dylan McRae, a Prairie Wind fifth grader, had a small net and a glass jar and was in search of something in the creek.
“We’re trying to catch some bugs,” he said. “He goes in his grass cocoon so the trout don’t eat him. And he waits until his wings are mature so he can fly away.”
And just like that, the student had become the teacher. And perhaps that was an impressive development. It was a startling level of detail from a young man who seemed unburdened by details (like when asked if the “r” in his last name should be capitalized, he said, “It doesn’t really matter.”).
When asked if he was a big fan of science in the classroom, his was a lukewarm answer.
“I like some science, not, like, a whole lot, but I do like science,” Dylan said.
At that particular moment, he was most looking forward to kickball. Oh, and learning how to fold an American flag. But so far, his favorite part of camp had probably been gun safety, he said.
Three DARE officers from the Campbell County Sheriff’s Office were holding court in front of a rapt group of students.
DARE officer Ed Holden was walking the students through four basic rules of gun safety, and on the final rule — Know your target and what’s beyond it — he told a powerful story.
When he was a kid growing up in southern California, Holden’s father, a deputy in Los Angeles County, was at home cleaning his weapons.
“I remember there was a day where he brought in a rifle, and he brought it into the living room and broke it all apart,” Holden said. “He cleaned it, and he oiled it and he put it back together. Well, the last step in cleaning the gun is you do a function check, and that does include pulling the trigger. As my dad slowly pulled the trigger — BANG!”
“Whoo!,” yelled DARE officer Dan Provost. “Got some jumpers. I saw you!”
Holden returned to his story. The opportunity for a jump-scare was too enticing to pass up, but he’d interrupted a true story.
“My dad accidentally sent a bullet sailing through our house,” he said. “It went into the outside wall of our house. Do you think it stopped there?”
The students knew it didn’t. The bullet didn’t hit Holden or one of his three siblings, but it did hit the family’s dog. The dog was suffering, and Holden’s dad had to put it down.
“Us kids, we were mad at my dad,” Holden said. “Like, how could this happen? How could a police officer who’s had so many years working with guns, how could he make that kind of mistake?”
The kids offered possible answers, and Holden deftly guided them to a much-needed lesson in a gun-friendly state like Wyoming: When a person spends a lot of time around guns, they sometimes can get lazy. He urged them to be better than that, and his story was a powerful reminder of what could happen if they didn’t.
After the group’s counselor had shot some water jugs at various distances with AR-15s and a shotgun and the students had left, one of the officers described his experience, not as a leader, but as a student.
“I was at Conestoga,” said Justin Fedderson, who was attending his first camp as a DARE officer. “I came here, and probably one of my best friends was in my group here at Mallo. He went to a different school. That’s how we met, and we’ve been friends ever since. He’s actually a police officer for the city.”
As is true for so many in the district, Fedderson’s love affair with Mallo Camp is multigenerational. It’s a staple of the community, a unique opportunity offered to students, that, with any luck, will be around yet another 40 years and then some.
The future of Close to Home Hospice and Hospitality House may be decided Thursday night when the hospital board of trustees is expected to vote on whether to reinstate inpatient hospice services in the facility.
“There will be a vote on whether the hospital is going to reopen the Hospice House or not,” Hospital Board Chairman Adrian Gerrits said last week.
The vote will come right about a year after Campbell County Health quietly suspended its inpatient hospice services in the Hospice House last September. CCH administrators have blamed a low patient census and staffing issues as the primary reasons for shutting it down.
CCH then announced a three- to six-month closure while it weighed its options and worked with what is now the Northeastern Wyoming Community Health Foundation, formerly the Campbell County Healthcare Foundation, to find a sustainable plan for reopening.
Close to Home continues to house CCH outpatient hospice services while inpatient hospice services continue to be provided at the Legacy Living and Rehabilitation Center.
A joint task force of CCH personnel, trustees and Foundation representation formed this spring, about the end of the initial six-month timeline, to find an agreeable business plan to bring back inpatient services. In recent weeks, members of that task force visited with representatives from the Davis Hospice Center, which is associated with Cheyenne Regional Medical Center.
The Davis Hospice Center was chosen as an example of a sustainable inpatient hospice facility in Wyoming that Close to Home operations could potentially learn from.
Nachelle McGrath, executive director of the foundation, said that the Cheyenne visit was discussed in a meeting with task force members last week, ahead of Thursday’s upcoming vote.
“I would think any of my board members who were in attendance (last week), including myself, would say the chances they are going to reopen are very slim,” McGrath said. “I don’t know what we could offer them at this point in time that would convince them to reopen.”
Based on the climate from previous meetings, McGrath said that she does not believe the foundation has support from CCH administrators and trustees in finding a way to reopen the inpatient services.
During the August hospital board meeting, trustees, administrators and their legal counsel discussed a demand letter sent from the foundation to CCH, accusing CCH of breaching its services agreement contract with the foundation. That legal letter falls short of a lawsuit, but continues to loom over the Close to Home discussion.
Findings from the Davis Hospice Center visit are expected to be reported at the board meeting Thursday before the deciding vote takes place, Gerrits said.
“I think the foundation is at a place, the community is at a place where we feel like we’ve thrown everything we can at it as far as doing due diligence of what it would look like to reopen, what the finances would look like, whether we can or not, and I think everyone is tired of going back and forth on it and just want a decision,” Gerrits said about the upcoming vote.