DAYTON — With quaint storefronts and the majestic Bighorns as a backdrop, Dayton at first feels a lot like other sleepy mountain towns. Early Wednesday afternoon, as rain misted down outside, a man filling his tank at Sinclair was the only soul visible from the town’s main drag.
But Dayton and neighboring Ranchester are far from just stop-offs for tourists on their way to enjoyment of the great outdoors. Both are active, healthy communities, and the Tongue River Valley Community Center is a big reason why. Of the valley’s roughly 1,800 residents, about 900 maintain memberships to TRVCC.
The Dayton facility includes a full gym, weight room with cardio equipment, dining area, kitchen, computer room, workout space, all-purpose area and a new climbing wall. TRVCC is home to fly-tying classes, after-school programs, Senior Center-sponsored lunches, pickle ball tournaments … and that’s just a busy week. Not bad for a town of fewer than 800, huh?
The center’s success might look like a stroke of good luck or even a bored, well-to-do donor, but don’t be fooled — TRVCC is the result of substantial time and hard work, much of it by Dayton resident Erin Kilbride.
The TRVCC executive director has put countless hours into turning a former high school and a derelict lumber yard into gathering places that drastically improve the quality of life in the valley. For her efforts, the Wyoming Association of Municipalities will honor her with a Community Hero Award at the WAM Convention June 12 at Little America in Cheyenne.
A gathering place
Kilbride doesn’t just oversee or delegate tasks within TRVCC, a small operation with only two full-time employees. In fact, as the slight blond gives a tour of the Dayton center, it’s obvious she has her hand in all aspects of TRVCC.
Moving from kitchen to gym to workout area, Kilbride said her day-to-day responsibilities could include administrative work, fundraising, program development and coordination, grant writing and other financial endeavors and even some cleaning.
“Pretty much everything and anything from me to make this place survive and go,” she said. “On any given day, I might have to do any one of those.”
For anybody else, the workload might seem like a stretch. But not Kilbride. She exudes energy, a clear enthusiasm for not just TRVCC and the activities inside, but also the community it supports. For her, it’s passion that started when she was young.
Kilbride grew up in Casper, a place she said afforded her numerous opportunities to be active, from sewing to piano lessons to basketball and soccer.
“I look back and think about what a big player that was in my life, and my parents made sure I had those opportunities,” she said.
But, when she first moved to Ranchester in 2007, she did not see the same chances for her family, at TRVCC or elsewhere. As the new executive director, she almost immediately set out to develop an after-school program, then her No. 1 priority.
“I saw it as a big need,” she said. “Living in this rural area, a lot of parents work in Sheridan, and they can’t be here at 4 o’clock when their kids get out of school. So where can the kids go to have a safe, structured place to be active and be engaged?”
Eight years later, and the answer for Tongue River families is TRVCC. It’s been downhill ever since, snowballing into more activities, more volunteers and more to do for kids, families and the people who call the valley home.
The community has responded. Kilbride has seen a huge shift, not just in public support, but also in more tangible evidence. Membership doubled from 2006 to 2007. Now, numbers have increased to the point where the centers bring in more than $80,000 per year on memberships alone — a huge figure for a nonprofit in a small town.
Sure enough, even on the same drab Wednesday afternoon when Dayton slightly resembled a ghost town, the bright inside of TRVCC showed obvious signs of life — even before the 4 p.m., after-school rush.
Two elderly gentlemen watched TV together and chatted. A mother and her young daughter worked at a computer desk. Not long after, Russ McCafferty and his two sons, Braden and Ryan, came in to shoot some hoops. The McCaffertys, Russ says, visit TRVCC about four times a week.
“It’s just a fun place to gather with friends and play some basketball,” Braden adds.
With a center in each town (a membership at one means access for both), Ranchester Mayor Peter Clark and Dayton Mayor Norm Anderson have seen Kilbride’s drive and the difference it has made in the community first-hand. The duo nominated her for the Community Hero Award.
“She’s always upbeat and very positive,” Clark said. “She finds ways to use programs and to tie in with the YMCA and Senior Center and all those other services. It really is a good focus for the community, for the valley. It sort of anchors both ends of the valley and glues it together.
“She’s been a guiding light for that whole process,” he added.
Aside from bringing Ranchester and Dayton closer together and providing needed services, Clark also cites making use of buildings that otherwise may have been demolished.
But he submits Kilbride does a whole lot more. She is a Community Hero because, as the WAM application states, winning efforts should be focused on “building strong communities.” Her work at the TRVCC has done just that.
While she said the WAM award is humbling and an honor, she doesn’t do the job for awards. She loves working with the people who frequent TRVCC and strives every day for a healthy, active community with numerous opportunities — the same ones she had when she was a child.
“Selfishly, I want the same for my kids,” she said. “But I also want it for every other kid here in the valley. I want it for every other family in the valley. I want them to have a place where they can come interact with each other, they can come play basketball together, they can come walk on the treadmill together.”
Keep the momentum going
For an outsider, it is difficult to imagine two towns the size of Dayton and Ranchester improving on the facilities offered at TRVCC, but Kilbride said she isn’t done yet. The 18-foot climbing wall is a recent installation, and a fitness on-demand app for community use was installed in the last year.
TRVCC members might not realize the effort that goes into additions to the center — coordinating with the YMCA, writing grants, refurbishing and repairing equipment and more — but the McCaffertys and other TRVCC residents clearly recognize the benefits and how lucky rural areas like Dayton and Ranchester are to have such amazing facilities.
“We feel really fortunate to have it here,” Russ McCafferty said.
And for Kilbride, the work of being a Community Hero is just beginning.
“I’ve put a lot of hard work and time into this,” she said. “I am totally committed to seeing it be a success. Not only this year and next year, but for many years to come.”