- Associated Press - Wednesday, May 9, 2018

GILLETTE, Wyo. (AP) - Victoria Howlett grew up in a family that needed her.

When we’re young, people usually take care of us. We rely on our elders to nurture us, provide for us and tend to our wounds.

As a young girl, Howlett took care of her mother, father and siblings. Her caregiving days started earlier than most.

When she grew older, she took care of her two daughters, step-granddaughter and her husband.

“This is something I’ve done since I was 17,” Howlett said.

Howlett has been adjusting her lifestyle to cater other people’s needs for a long time.

Her younger brother was in an accident at Triton Coal Co. that caused him to become a quadriplegic.

“We all had to adjust because of his disabilities,” Howlett said.

It’s been her nature since she was a teenager to help people, and Howlett hasn’t stopped that service after all these years.


Howlett met Teresa Vargas in July.

Vargas and her 20-year-old daughter, Alex, have lived in Gillette for two years. That’s after spending about 13 years in Rawlins.

Before moving to Wyoming, Vargas was in a bad car crash that severely injured her left leg. She’s been somewhat disabled since. She has constant leg pain and her back and lower body starts to hurt if she stands for more than four hours at a time.

Last year, she worked at the Campbell County Public Library but the constant standing and sitting proved a little too much for her and the leg couldn’t keep up.

When she lived in Texas, Vargas worked as a hairdresser.

Because Vargas has been out of work for a while, paying for an in-home medical assistant or traveling nurse would be expensive. Alex takes care of her mother as much as she can, but as a recent high school graduate, she can only do so much.

That’s where Howlett comes in.

Howlett is a registered and trained companion through the statewide Wyoming Senior Companion program.

Wyoming Senior Companion is largely funded by both state and federal grants and is under the Wyoming Senior Citizens Inc. umbrella.

The organization was founded in 1975 and is a private, nonprofit effort that attempts to meet the needs of Wyoming’s older residents and help them maintain their independence.

The “companions” in the Wyoming Senior Companion program are trained to help adults with all kinds of tasks, like simple chores around the home that are essential, but often difficult for a home-bound person to accomplish on hers or his own.

Another unique aspect to the program is that it is 100 percent free. There is no charge for service and no income eligibility requirements for recipients.

The companions themselves are either complete volunteers or get paid $2.65 an hour for their services.

Howlett found out about the program from a flyer on the bulletin board at the Campbell County Public Library.

“I’m really good when it comes to this because I did it all my life and later studied some psychology in college,” Howlett said. “I was always learning about people’s disabilities and have always been resourceful in that way.”

Since July, Howlett has visited with Vargas at least three times a week to help her in a number of ways.

She drives Vargas to various appointments, gives her advice on how to better treat her injury, cooks dinner, cleans the apartment and is even helping her speak English.

Howlett has had her fair share of medical issues. She was put on Social Security disability after severely injuring her foot and was on the brink of having it amputated.

“It’s those kinds of things that I can help Teresa with,” Howlett said. “These are things that I’ve gone through. I have that experience with it, so I really want to help her get through these times and get the help she needs.”

Howlett has spent most of her life helping people, but now is a time in Gillette when she is the one who could use some help.


Vernita Lackey is the Senior Companion Program coordinator for the organization’s Casper office.

There are two other offices, in Cheyenne and Riverton.

Lackey has been at her post since November, but is already trying to get the word out about the program.

One of the main reasons is that the average age of Wyoming, and Campbell County especially, is rising rapidly and Howlett is the only companion the organization has on the books in Gillette.

The senior population in the state grew 3.8 percent between July 2015 and July 2016, according to U.S. Census Bureau estimates.

The median age also rose by 0.3 to 37.1 years, while it increased from 37.8 to 37.9 during the same period for the United States. The figure indicates that the aging of Wyoming’s population has picked up speed, and the pace is one of the fastest in the country.

Lackey said a key distinction she hopes to make is that the program is for people who want to delay the process of moving into an assisted living facility. Companions cannot make visits to those living centers as part of the program.

Both Howlett and Lackey both agree that there is a need in Gillette.

Victoria is pretty busy,” Lackey said. “I think there’s a need not only in Gillette, but everywhere.”

The problem, Lackey guessed, is that people simply don’t know about Wyoming Senior Companions.

Although the companions cannot perform medical treatment, hand out medication or help with showering and other things, “we can do the things that paid programs can do,” Lackey said, from house cleaning, checking up on people and basic assisted-living tasks.

Gillette now has the same number of companions as smaller communities like Buffalo, Rawlins, Douglas and Sundance.

In Casper, there are 10 companions who take care of about an average of four to five clients each. Cheyenne also has a companion count in the double digits.

Howlett said she is on the verge of signing up with a second client, but only if her own schedule can handle it.

In fact, Alex was the one who found an older gentlemen who could use the help. Alex and her mother met the man at a local McDonald’s.

Now Howlett is scheduling a time to meet with him and learn about his needs.

That’s the best way to have people inquire about the program, Lackey said.

“I think the word of mouth is not out there,” she said. “People just don’t know about it.”


Vargas said that having Howlett around from time to time is extremely helpful.

At the time Howlett met Vargas, Vargas was just coming out of the Gillette Abuse Refuge Foundation. To this day, she still deals with memory loss and post-traumatic stress disorder.

“She helps me to stay on top of things,” Vargas said of Howlett. “Remembering to take my medication, to take care of leg, those kinds of things.”

If it weren’t for Howlett, Vargas and her daughter would have to figure a lot of things out by themselves.

Good thing they have a companion.


Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com

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