While working part-time at a farm giving horseback riding lessons and mucking out stalls, Molly Reeser met Casey Foote. The lively ten-year-old visited the farm regularly to care for and ride the horses with a friend; it was a therapeutic way for Casey to deal with the treatment she was undergoing for bone and brain cancer. “Casey’s family would oftentimes come out and ride and it was a beautiful thing to witness,” Reeser recalls. “Here was this young girl going through really difficult times, yet she made it a priority to enjoy the therapeutic benefits of horseback riding.” Eighteen months after Reeser met her, Casey passed away.
Reeser and her friends at the farm decided they wanted to honor Casey’s memory. She says, “Different ideas were tossed around, but I wanted to choose a fitting tribute to Casey’s spirit.” It was then that Reeser approached the barn owners with her idea. “I asked if we could take over the facility for one day when we could invite kids with cancer and their entire families to come out and enjoy the horses the way Casey had.” Reeser said the owners were very supportive. “They wanted to honor Casey’s life, and they also knew that they had a resource that was invaluable to children,” Reeser says.
“You can be a part of the beautiful spiral of
good that we are creating.”
On June 19, 2004, when Reeser was only 20 and a student at Michigan State University, the first Camp Casey event took place. “It wasn’t meant to be a true camp, just a one-day thing, she insists.” That day, about 80 people came – 20 kids with their families enjoyed arts and crafts, food and horseback riding. The one-day experience was fueled by Reeser’s time as a camp counselor at Black River Farm & Ranch in Croswell, MI, a summer residential horse camp for girls. “The day was beautiful and we felt we had honored Casey’s life appropriately,” she says.
That was going to be the end of Camp Casey, until, “about a week later, I received a letter from a little boy that said, ‘thank you for the best day of my life,’ Reeser shares. “I realized I was going to have to do this again.” Reeser continued Camp Casey once a month until she graduated from college. But that wasn’t the end of it; for about eight years after, Reeser continued to build Camp Casey. “I’m proud to say that I’m a full-time employee of my organization, and we employ a full-time staff,” she says. “The program has evolved tremendously since that day in June 13 years ago, and has touched the lives of countless children, volunteers and families. I’m really proud of it,” Reeser says.
Camp Casey provides services to children with cancer who are seeking treatment at any Michigan pediatric oncology hematology center. It also serves kids who have sickle cell disease and aplastic anemia, which Reeser explains are similarly treated, rare blood disorders. Camp Casey serves all of Southeast Michigan and Reeser is proud and thankful to report, “thanks to the Hagerman Foundation, we’ve been given the opportunity to grow into the Greater Flint and Genesee County area. Black River Farm & Ranch is also a huge contributor – not only financially, but also with volunteers. Without the Hagerman Foundation and Black River, the Horsey House Calls in Genesee County would not be possible.”
Each summer, Camp Casey provides 40 Horsey House Calls (HHC) – a program that evolved from the first Camp Casey. Rather than kids and their families traveling to the farm, the horse comes to them! Oftentimes, Camp Casey works with the parents to make it a complete surprise when a child opens their door and is greeted by their own HHC Party, complete with T-shirts, crafts and food for their friends and family.
Camp Casey also offers Cowboy Camp Outs which are “overnight mini-vacations at dude ranch resorts.” Two times a summer, families are selected to vacation at a convenient, horse-themed resort. Planning and expenses associated with the trip are completely covered by Camp Casey. Another program is offered year-round – Outlaw Outings – which are cost-free excursions across Michigan for campers and their families to enjoy. The outings include professional sports games, theatre performances, and trips to apple orchards and pumpkin patches as a way to stay connected to the Camp Casey families.
Reeser explains, “this is such a collaborative effort. I am so much a part of a team and it takes many people and businesses to make this happen.” The program has been experiencing tremendous growth, so there is always a need for volunteers to keep it going. “Each HHC requires six volunteers, and all of the training is done online and takes about 20 minutes,” she adds. “You don’t have to be horse savvy to do it, so I just want to encourage everyone to consider volunteering, liking us on Facebook and spreading the word. These programs are free to the families and you can be a part of the beautiful spiral of good that we are creating.”
To get involved or to nominate someone for a HHC, visit camp-casey.org. There is a one-page application to volunteer and a one-page application to apply or nominate someone for any Camp Casey service.
Photography by Eric Dutro