GILLETTE, Wyo. — It's not an exaggeration to say that everyone stops Danielle Forsell and Iris Rose as they make their way through the corridors of Pioneer Manor during their weekly volunteering rounds. Around these parts, their reputation precedes them.
In a way, they're local celebrities. February will mark two years since they first started visiting, and when they come through the doors, the demeanor of staff and residents alike changes.
Tired nurses weighed down by the challenging work and long hours get a gleam in their eyes when the volunteers come toward them. Many residents — some helped to their doors by manor employees, others assisted by wheelchairs or walkers — make their way from the interior of their rooms to the hallway where they can get a better view of the duo.
"Why hello, Iris. How are you Danielle?" a woman in her 80s says, reaching up to take Forsell's hand.
"There are our two favorites," a blond-haired nurse says as she hugs Iris close.
As the corners of their mouths lift upward, wrinkly faces give way to wide smiles.
"It's so good to see you, dear," an older woman tells Forsell. "It's been too long since you've been here."
Iris lays calmly in a wagon, her pale yellow-green eyes alert, taking in everything around her. As Forsell begins pulling the wagon down another long hall, Iris, a certified therapy dog, allows her pit bull mouth to widen for just a moment in a toothy grin that shows she, too, is happy to see the people who adore her and are so willing to shower her with attention.
More than two years ago, following a failed marriage and a move into a small RV, Forsell knew her life needed a change. She had worked with many dogs in the past, using her rottweiler Venus to train rescued dogs and re-home them.
Something about dogs that get an unfair reputation for being vicious and dangerous attracted her. Forsell wanted to help overcome that stereotype.
Forsell's arms are covered in tattoos. Others are covered by her clothing. She has piercings in her nose and lip. Despite dressing modestly and appropriately when she goes out in public, there have been times when people have avoided her because of how she looks.
If anyone can understand getting lumped into a bad reputation simply because of people's misconceptions, she can.
"It's a problem that's far too common, and people do it with dogs and they do it with their fellow human beings. Maybe it's about race or background, whatever. It's not right to box everyone — anyone — into a category," she says. "You know, Venus was such a loving dog, and she was so good with other dogs — despite that bad breed name."
Forsell had helped Venus work beyond the negativity that surrounded her breed. If she could do it with one dog, why not another?
On Sept. 15, 2012, Forsell found a litter of pit bull puppies for sale out of the back of a car. She stopped and peered into the bin, locking eyes with one scrawny brown and white pup.
It was love at first sight, but Forsell only had a hand in the decision.
"(The owner) had Iris in a tote in the back seat of her car with all the other puppies. I picked Iris up out of all of them, and I was petting her. I went to reach for another puppy, but she put her paw on that puppy and pushed it away," Forsell says. "I decided she was the one. She picked me."
Venus passed away about a year after Iris came along, but in the short time they were together, the rottweiler taught the little pit bull how to interact with dogs and people.
Forsell and Iris, who will be 3 years old in August, first walked into Pioneer Manor for a therapy visit when the dog was just 6 months old.
"I had planned to try to take Iris once a month and see how she did. I had trained her with Venus, but I didn't know how she'd react once she was placed in the situation," Forsell says. "She handled it so perfectly that they asked, 'Can you come every week?'"
With the exception of times when the manor has implemented visitor restrictions because of illness outbreaks, such as flu, the two have volunteered every Thursday since.
"How can you bring so much sunshine to one old building?" asks 72-year-old Pioneer Manor resident Pat Allen, extending an arm to pet Iris's soft coat.
Iris accepts a treat from her hand, eagerly smacking her lips and hoping for another.
"Would you share those with me?" Allen coos, turning to Forsell. "It really is like a shot of sunshine just to see you both. It really does brighten my day."
As Iris is pulled further down the manor hall, she comes across somebody new to her.
James Hanson, a slight man who uses a walker to shuffle himself around the manor, looks down at the dog. At 97, he's easily one of the oldest residents living there. His eyes are hazy, as is common with the onset of age. But it's clear, as he talks to her, that haze isn't a symptom of the onset of cataracts or the fragility of a fading mind.
He reaches out to pet Iris, slowly at first. The haze in his eyes is wet, and the droplets pool at the corner of one of his eyes as he remembers years long since passed.
"I'm a dog man, and I always have been," Hanson says softly. "For a long time, I had a Welsh corgi named Dundee. Oh, he was a good dog. Just like this one. She's quite the big, bad pit bull, isn't she?"
Like many moments in an old folks' home, it's fleeting. But moments like these aren't lost on Forsell.
"I try not to get attached when I bring Iris in here, but I think she gets emotionally connected to a lot of these people," she says. "And I know many of them feel connected to her, in one way or another."
Forsell and Iris don't just dedicate their time to the elderly. Following their trip to Pioneer Manor, they go to Prairie Wind Elementary to help students who have trouble reading.
From her own life, Forsell, 42, knows what impact literacy can have on a young life. She confesses she's not much for reading.
"I'm not big on it. Never have been, really. But I know it's important," Forsell says. "It's an important part of life, and getting a little bit of help to build their confidence could mean these kids' lives end up very different."
Iris and Forsell typically sit with children in the hallway outside their classrooms. The dog stretches out and makes herself at home, often bringing smiles and giggles from the students.
That only makes them feel more at ease, and soon they're reading to the dog with confidence. An attentive and unbiased Iris isn't here to judge if a student stumbles over an unfamiliar word. She isn't there to make the child feel they've failed in some way.
She's just here to listen.
Iris places her head in a small girl's lap, and the girl runs her hand slowly along the dog's back. The second-grader begins to forget the outside world as she begins to read. Iris's tail wags, and those eyes focus on the child's voice.
Forsell insists she's only there to help those students who might need some help sounding out words. She says Iris is the one who the kids respond best to, but it's clear the students have a respect for Forsell as well.
The woman knows many of these students by name, and some of them are a regular part of her weekdays. She works as a bus driver for the Campbell County School District and is assigned to the Prairie Wind route.
If Iris begins to look like she's lost interest, a gentle but firm reprimand brings her back to attention.
"Sit please," Forsell says to the excited dog as she gets up to peer down the hall at some other students. Iris turns, looks at Forsell and knows this is a time she needs to listen.
In dog years, Forsell says, Iris is just a teenager. Though she's very well-trained, she's far from perfect. Iris is young and still learning how to respond to some situations, but wearing her neon pink therapy dog vest and riding in the therapy wagon lets her know it's time to work.
Like the children she's there to help, the dog does her best to not get distracted by the movements and noises around her. But sometimes it's hard to focus.
It's times like that when firm, yet positive, reinforcement and manners help.
"I think that manners are very important, whether I'm talking to Iris or a student who might be getting a bit unruly and testing me," Forsell says. "I insist on always saying 'please' and 'thank you,' and I make sure that she knows I'm not going to back down. Otherwise, she'd try to walk all over me.
"In the past, I've let some people who were in my life do that, and it really ended up causing problems," Forsell says. "Working with Iris, I've really learned to stand firm on important things."
When she has finished reading, the second-grade girl rises, bids farewell to Iris and Forsell and returns to the classroom. A quiet boy with dark hair and curious eyes soon replaces her.
A shy smile crosses his face as he bends down to pet Iris. She enthusiastically licks his hand.
"OK," Forsell says, patting the ground next to her and signaling for the boy to sit. "What are we going to read together today?"
After a day of volunteering, Forsell and Iris return to their humble RV. Electric heaters buzz to life and the lights are dimmed low. It was a productive day, Forsell says, but there will always be those who try to box the two of them into unfair stereotypes.
That's not to say there haven't been dark times in her history, she says. She doesn't shy away from talking about them if asked, but she doesn't mention them unless necessary.
Forsell, a victim of molestation at the hands of her stepfather when she was a child, raised two children with her now ex-husband. A few years back, she discovered her son had molested a neighbor's children. As someone who had dealt with that first hand, she says, she couldn't ignore it.
"I wasn't going to have that in my home. I couldn't let it happen and disregard it," she says.
It led her down a road of doctor visits and medication to deal with anxiety and depression. She tried to move past the hand that had been dealt to her family. Her then-husband couldn't.
Her decision to turn over her son, she says, tore them apart.
"I was really depressed. I was having a hard time with being alone. It was the first time that I had lived absolutely alone. Before that, I'd always had a partner or my children," she says. "It was the first time that I had nothing and no one."
In that way, Iris — with two prominent marks along her back that form wings — came along as the angel to save Forsell's life, and the woman says she follows Iris's example to give of herself freely. That helps fill them both with joy.
"You really get what you give," she says, lowering herself to the floor next to Iris. "Being able to take Iris to those places where she can be a therapy dog not only helps others, but it helps me.
"I've had tough times, and I've made my share of mistakes. I won't deny that if anyone asks me, but I'm working to move past them," she says. "I'm working to improve my circumstances, but some people have a hard time accepting that."
Things are looking up, though. Recently, the duo's volunteer efforts have spread to the Veterans' Home of Wyoming in Buffalo. At home in Gillette, the two also visit seniors living at the Parkview Apartments regularly.
Forsell smiles and glances down at a lazy Iris, now lounging in her lap.
"She rescued me by showing me the kind of love that I always wanted, helping me through my tough times," she says.
The woman smiles and glances down at Iris lazily enjoying her companion's attention.
Iris's official work for the day is done. Now she can move on to what she does best.
Making Forsell's life complete.
Information from: The Gillette (Wyo.) News Record, http://www.gillettenewsrecord.com