THE SEARCH FOR IRENE: Community Fundraiser Marks One-Year Anniversary of Kenyan’s Disappearance

Over 50 Gillette residents gather to “Paint with a Purpose,” support Irene Gakwa and family

Hands on Pottery owner Michele Thara, 47, created the mug design for Gakwa's fundraiser to mark the one-year anniversary since the Kenyan national and nursing student disappeared from her home in Gillette. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher)

By Jennifer Kocher

Special to the Wyoming Truth

GILLETTE, Wyo.—Hands on Pottery owner Michele Thara created the mug design especially for Irene Gakwa. Standing before the front window of her ceramic studio Monday afternoon, as snow fell behind her, Thara pointed out the rainbow and heart, painted blue in Gakwa’s favorite color.

Charlie Christensen, 2, was one of the youngest participants to show her support for Irene Gawka, who has been missing since last February. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher) 

“Rainbows always remind me of hope,” she said, “and the heart is all the love we have for her.” 

The yellow ribbon underneath, however, is a grim reminder that Gakwa is still missing. This month marks the one-year anniversary since the 33-year-old Kenyan national and nursing student disappeared from her home in Gillette.

What happened to Gakwa is a mystery, as police continue investigating and her family in Idaho and Kenya wait for answers.  

Gakwa moved to Gillette with her fiancé Nathan Hightman, 39, in summer 2021 after meeting him on a Craigslist forum in Idaho. Gakwa had been living in the U.S. since 2019 after moving to Idaho from Kenya to be closer to her two older brothers. She was last seen in a video call with her parents on Feb. 24, 2022.

Hightman contends Gakwa left on her own accord one evening after disappearing into a dark-colored SUV with her belongings packed in two plastic bags, according to court documents. Hightman has since been charged with five felonies related to financial and intellectual property crimes against Gakwa with a trial scheduled for April. Police also consider him a “person of interest” in Gakwa’s disappearance.

Jasmine Kaul (left), DaNece Day and Kellyn Gillenwater attended the fundraiser on Monday to show support for Gakwa and missing women everywhere. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher) 

Painting with purpose 

In the interim, several local residents – led by Stacy Koester – have conducted their own searches for Gakwa. Koester coordinated with Thara to host Monday’s fundraiser, “Painting with a Purpose,” to commemorate the somber occasion. All of the money from the $25 tickets will be donated to Gakwa’s family in Idaho to cover their travel expenses to Hightman’s trial in April.

Thara donated the space and all materials, while Koester spent the past month ironing decals on T-shirts and selling tickets. In total, they sold over 53 tickets and raised $1,325. 

Like Koester, Thara never met Gakwa. She felt compelled to help, because Gakwa was part of a community that Thara had always deemed safe.

“It’s unimaginable that this happened in our backyard,” she said. “It’s absolutely devastating.”

As a mother of two daughters in their 20s, both of whom live out of state, Thara also feels for Gakwa’s family.

“I can’t imagine what they are going through,” she said, gazing at the row of mugs still to be painted.

Haley Warren, 24, and Siobahn Gonzalez, 30, paint their mugs in honor of Gakwa. (Wyoming Truth photo by Jennifer Kocher) 

Haley Warren, 24, and Siobahn Gonzalez, 30, shared these sentiments. The two sat across from one another at a table near the front door, quietly painting their mugs. Both expressed their disbelief that Gakwa is missing and have been following her story carefully over the past several months.

“It’s disturbing and sad,” Warren said. “Being in a small town, you don’t think things can happen like this.”

“We wanted to be here to show our support,” Gonzalez added.

In the back of the room, Kellyn Gillenwater, 24, her best friend Jasmine Kaul, 20, and Gillenwater’s mother, DaNece Day, were bent over their mugs painting. 

Day, a deputy county and prosecuting attorney for Crook County, added her own embellishment: “justice” painted on the back of her mug. She, too, has been following Gakwa’s case carefully and is optimistic that her family will one day have answers.

“As women, we’re vulnerable, and this is the worst-case scenario,” Day said about Gakwa’s disappearance. “We need to support other women and show her our community cares.”

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