By AUTUMN TOENNIS/Montana State News
Heather Collins is quietly humble. “I’m not one for being in the spotlight,” she said.
Collins’ office at Eagle Mount Bozeman has a beautiful view of the Bridger Mountains; behind her desk hang colorful paintings of more mountains; both things betray her love of the outdoors. “I love to hike, ski, and fish – my husband is an avid fisherman and professional fly-tier,” she said smiling, exchanging a handshake before sitting down at her desk.
The road that brought her to Bozeman and Eagle Mount is a long one. Collins majored in Health and Human Performance at the University of Montana, intending to go on to medical school. However, a series of circumstances led her and her family to settle in Bozeman. It was there that she saw an ad in the paper for a position as the executive administrative assistant at Eagle Mount.
“I fell in love with what they do,” said Collins. “And I have always wanted to work with children with special needs.” This month is her seven-year anniversary, and she now is the facility’s development coordinator, working with fundraising, donors, business partners, special events and community partners. Her broad networking skills cover a variety of things.
Her involvement with people with disabilities and with the Special Olympics program goes back to her years in high school – she taught swim lessons as well as cross country skiing for Special Olympics in her hometown of Encinitas, Calif. One of her nephews has autism as well.
According to the website mission statement, Eagle Mount is “committed to provide quality therapeutic recreational opportunities for people with disabilities and young people with cancer, and to provide support for families of participants so that ‘they shall mount up with wings as eagles’ (Isaiah 40:31).”
Collins connects strongly with the cancer part of the statement.
“I’m a cancer survivor,” she said. Collins was a competitive swimmer while in high school; she also spent almost every day at the beach or in her family’s backyard pool, sunbathing with her sisters in her Southern California hometown. Before she was to go back to college in Missoula at the University of Montana, her mother noticed an odd mole on her daughter’s back. According to Collins, a biopsy confirmed that it was stage two melanoma, but hadn’t yet metastasized.
“It changed who I was as a person,” Collins said. “Every year, you go in for the blood work, the tests and you always have that anxiety in the back of your mind. It changed me from someone who was always outside in the sun to someone who became a recluse. I was 21 – it was nineteen years ago, and I feel like I’ve been coming out of my shell in the last few years.”
“I’m at a point in my life where I can really start to enjoy it, I think.” Collins smiled, wiping her eyes and apologizing. “Sorry I’m very emotional – my boss always goes ‘I did a Heather.’ ” Laughing, she draws her fingers down from the corners of her eyes like tears.
She said that working with children who have cancer is “one of the unique things about Eagle Mount.” The program caters to people with cancer ages 5-23. “A lot of people who get cancer end up having disability issues related to their treatment – especially kids,” she said.
She related one of her favorite stories about Big Sky Venture camp, which is for 11-18 year-olds. “There was a girl who wore a wig because she was so self-conscious and within two days of being at camp, that wig came off and stayed off for the rest of the time. That’s huge, especially in those teenage years where things can be so hard.”
While talking about the kids, it became evident that family is huge to Collins. She described her husband of 15 years, Zac, as her best friend; the two met in college. “My husband could meet a friend in a morgue,” she quipped, laughingly describing Zac’s outgoing personality. “We both love the outdoors. He taught both our girls to fly fish, and would spend every moment in a river if he could.”
Collins talked happily about her two daughters, Madison and Campbell, who are ages 10 and 12. Collins said, “They have hearts of gold.” Both are involved in school sports and music, which is an important part of their family. “I think my girls have been to over 50 concerts,” said Collins. “It’s just something we all love.”
The girls are also involved in their mothers work. “When we first moved here, both girls were peer volunteers,” said Collins. “When she [Campbell] was in first grade, my mother came to visit. The first thing she did was to take my mother to the special education room at school and introduce her to all her friends.” She paused, looking up. “My daughters have grown up knowing there is no difference – those with disabilities are just people like us and they know not to treat anyone different.”
As the interview winded down, Collins offered to give a tour of the facility. As she walked, she talked animatedly about the equestrian barns outside, and the aquatics center.
When asked if she was happy with her job, she smiled widely. “I love my job. Every day you get a hug or a smile from a participant,” Collins said. “What I love about this place is that it is about just being a person having fun recreating, instead of being a person with a disability. It’s not about their disability, it’s about their abilities and who they are as people.”
Anyone who comes to Eagle Mount and asks for Heather Collins will find a bright, smiling woman, with a passion to help others. Though she did not go to med school, as she had intended, Collins said of her work, “I think I’m doing just as rewarding work here – just in different way.”
– Edited by Levi Worts and Matt Parsons