[Originally published July 2020.]
Times seem to be getting harder for farmers and ranchers trying to eke out a living and, a few short years ago, southeastern Colorado saw a spike in ag-related suicides as a result. An initiative to address rural stress was born out of the tragedy, and Jennifer Pollmiller has been contributing her professional know-how to the efforts since last October.
“I’m the Director of Communications at Southeast Health Group. We do integrative healthcare down here, so we have primary care, physical therapy, substance abuse and mental health all kind of right here. And we cover six counties here in southeast Colorado.”
Under the umbrella of Southeast Health Group, Pollmiller, 28, has joined a team of rural community members who, in their professional lives, do everything from live-stock management to banking to tractor sales and higher education for an initiative they’re calling The Coffee Break Project.
“The best thing we’ve done so far is we’ve really raised attention for it,” Pollmiller said. “We’ve brought it to light that farmers and ranchers are struggling and commodity prices are lower than ever and they can’t feed their families on that, so I think that, more than anything, we’ve raised awareness about the situation.”
The team is currently trying to secure funding to get The Coffee Break Project online so that they can offer their presentations virtually in the time of COVID-19, but their grassroots beginnings has not stopped the state of Colorado from leaning on this regional endeavor and using it for the greater good.
“They were focusing on rural stress at the state level and Gov. Polis actually used our marketing material in the background for one of his speeches. Our marketing material has all of our sponsor logos on there, so that was really exciting for them, and we got a lot of exposure. Following that, the CBHC—the Colorado Behavioral Healthcare Council—they had a focus on rural stress at their state convention, which was awesome. They asked our committee to come sit and we did a panel discussion and so we got to talk about that there.”
When addressing rural stress, part of the challenge involves tackling deep-rooted notions like “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps” (not asking for help) and “good fences make good neighbors” (minding your own business).
“The Coffee Break Project really just focuses on changing the stigma around behavioral health issues. We present how we formed our agricultural committee and, then, we also teach ways to prevent it. Basically, the entire campaign revolves around checking in on your neighbors and focusing on what we really think is the traditional cowboy way: We look out for each other. So, checking in on your neighbor and if they say they’re okay, just really asking them, are you sure? Are you actually okay? And having those deep, harder conversation.”
Pollmiller, though new to the healthcare field, has plenty of cowboy experience.
“My senior year of high school, I went to a jackpot in Kremmling (Colorado) and I caught my hand in my coils, so it sucked down around my whole left hand. I had to get my pinky reattached. It was a pretty ugly deal.”
Admittedly, she put roping on the back burner for a while and focused on running barrels and developing her journalism career, which secured her a position recruiting for the Otero Junior College rodeo team, after spending a few years freelancing. Now, she’s communicating for good, rural health, and she’s back in the roping arena, too.
“I have been super lucky this week,” Pollmiller said in June. “I’ve roped every night. I live in a great place because all my neighbors have cattle and they invite us over to rope all the time and we have our little local club—the Fowler Roping Club—just down the road in Fowler, so, we have little jackpots every Sunday. And, every once in a while, I go to the USTRCs or whatever’s close. I don’t travel too far.”
As a 3 header, Pollmiller is leaning on her barrel horse to make the shift back to roping with her.
“He was my barrel horse for the last five years and he’s just a super athlete, so, got him started in the team roping last year. Then, I bought a horse last year and she had a colt on her side, so I’ve been getting her legged up. We’re always working on something and I’ve had a lot of help this year. [When I cut off my finger,] I lost a lot of confidence, so, my left-hand placement and dallying correctly is what I’m working on right now. That’s kind of my main focus when I team rope now … and from now on.”