What started as a few emails and private social media posts quickly snowballed into a community-wide philanthropic effort when several families joined forces to provide aid to people in Wyoming’s Wind River Reservation.
Less than two weeks ago, Tom and Kristin Combs learned from some Jackson friends that residents of the Wind River Reservation have very limited resources to care for sick people and kids out of school because of the COVID-19 pandemic. The Combses started spreading the word among their acquaintances, including Victor mayor Will Frohlich, who posted it on social media, garnering the attention of county commissioner Cindy Riegel. Soon many people in the community were sharing the information, and the Combses committed to collecting donations of food, medicine, cleaning supplies, books, and other necessities to take over to the Center for the Arts in Jackson, where representatives from the Fremont County School District and Wind River Inter-Tribal Council planned to collect the supplies for distribution at the reservation on April 2.
“So many people need help right now, and we decided the right thing for us to do is get involved and try and help,” Tom explained.
Jason and Charlotte O’Neill, owners of Summit Self-Storage, offered up a trailer for a larger scale donation. Then people started asking about making cash donations to the cause.
“We weren’t set up to handle money,” Tom said. That’s when Ron James and Retta Feller of R&R Catering and Captain Ron’s Smokehouse got involved. They had already established themselves as something of a clearing house for donations when a young moose died in Driggs in early March after being shot by an unknown individual and they started collecting donations for an anti-poaching reward. That fund grew to $1,100 but the suspect hasn’t yet been found.
“We said, that money isn’t being used for anything, and here’s an opportunity to make a huge difference and put it to good use,” Ron said. “It’s not cool for people to go hungry, especially children.”
He posed the question on Facebook: would people who donated to the moose fund be okay with the money going toward much-needed supplies for the reservation instead?
“The idea was very well-received,” Ron said. “People want to get these kids fed.”
The fund quickly grew as people made donations through the week, including one donor who wished to stay anonymous and gave a significant amount.
The Summit Storage trailer sat in the Broulim’s parking lot on April 1 (with a supply of hand sanitizer for safe donating) and people filled it nearly to the brim. Tom said when he and Kristin arrived at the Victor library for one last stop on the morning of April 2 before driving over Pine Creek Pass to Jackson (Teton Pass is still closed to trailers) that there were people already waiting to make donations.
“Our community is amazing,” he said. “It’s warming to the heart.”
Once in Jackson, the Combses met with the people picking up the supplies, including Mike Redman and Iva Moss-Redman of the Northern Arapaho Tribe, who work in the school district. Because of a heavy snowstorm, they didn’t have large enough vehicles to transport the goods back to the reservation, so the O’Neills let them take the storage trailer.
“We are thrilled it’s filled and can be used,” said Jason O’Neill.
Thursday’s donation isn’t the last of it; with all the monetary donations coming in, Tom estimated that there’s nearly $6,000 to place a bulk order through US Foods to be shipped directly to the reservation, once a refrigeration unit is established on site to hold the supplies. The Summit trailer will also be parked in front of Broulim’s the rest of this week, from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. through Friday. This time around, Tom is encouraging donations of gardening and cleaning supplies and over the counter medications.
Ron and Retta, with the help of Yeti’s Post, have been overseeing bulk orders for valley residents as well. While business at the barbecue shack has been steady, Ron’s son and his girlfriend have come on as employees, leaving Ron time to send the hundreds of emails necessary to organize the food orders and pick-ups. He hopes to get in touch with people who aren’t able to leave their houses because he and several volunteers want to provide free home deliveries of essentials.
“We feel so lucky to live where we live,” Ron said. “People have been so supportive of us and we want to give back. This is the greatest, most giving community with everyone wanting to make an impact.”