Sometimes a hat is more than a hat.
Colton Emick's baseball cap collection was fashion, statement, quirk and casual obsession. The hats were souvenirs from his life's journey and he displayed them proudly - or, at least the 50 or so that would fit - on the walls of his bedroom, in the home where he lived with his parents, Tim and Mindy.
"Every time he goes anywhere, to a concert, a game, on a trip, he gets a new hat. That's what we'd all get him for Christmas and birthdays," said his sister-in-law, Jaclyn Emick. "Everybody knows that's his thing."
Tim, Mindy and Colton Emick's house southwest of Hanover was among the first of 18 homes to fall to the 117 fire as it began chewing across southern El Paso County on April 17. The family plans to rebuild, but currently is living in Colorado Springs with Jaclyn and her husband, Cameron, Colton's older brother.
In the days and weeks after the fire, community support for the family - with food, fellowship and cleanup - was vital and "amazing," Jaclyn said. Still, she wanted to do something special, specifically for her 26-year-old brother-in-law, who seemed to be struggling in his mourning.
"He lost everything, too. He was one of the first ones there and had to watch his whole home burn down. I think it's affected him a little bit more," she said. "I wanted to see if I could do something for him to make him feel more at home, and let him know that people are thinking about him."
Jaclyn emailed retailers and corporate offices, explaining Colton's story and asking for donations to help start a new collection. Her message to athletic headwear company, Lids, got a response far grander than she'd ever imagined.
Denver-based district sales manager Stephanie Harris was moved by Jaclyn's message, and forwarded it to one of the company's founders, Glenn Campbell. The following week, a Lids VP who'd flown in for a corporate meeting handed her $1,000 worth of gift cards to pass along to the family. Harris and the "buying team" also raided their samples to fill a box with 50 hats bearing many of Colton's favorite logos - Broncos, Avalanche, Rockies, a few of them autographed by sports stars.
To sweeten the deal: If Colton's family could get him to the Lids store at Town Center in Aurora on a morning before opening time, he could have the place to himself for an hour-long shopping spree.
They decided to make it a surprise.
"My dad's been telling me for a couple weeks that there's a trail up in Aurora that we need to go bid on," said Colton, who works for his father's company, Timberline Landscaping. "I said, 'OK, let's go bid.'"
When he and a family friend pulled into the mall parking lot Friday, Colton said he thought it was "kind of weird - a trail at a mall?" but he rolled with it. When he spied his sister-in-law and niece waiting for him at the hat store, the jig was up - kind of.
"It was a real surprise, even when I walked in the door I didn't know what was going on. I still kept thinking there's a trail we've got to go bid on," he said.
While Colton said there's no replacing the original collection, which included a cherished cap signed by legendary Denver Bronco John Elway, the new hats are the first furnishings of a new beginning.
"I can wear a new hat every day for the next month and not go through them," he said. "To know that there are such awesome people out there. ... I don't even know how to describe it. I'm just so thankful and blessed."