Camp Casey: Providing Help, Horses and Happiness
| 6 min read
Most children dream of walking out on their front porch to see something magical. Camp Casey is doing just that for the kids who need that little bit of sparkle the most.
Camp Casey is a non-profit organization that was established in 2004 with the mission of bringing smiles to kids with cancer and rare blood diseases.
Molly Reeser, Founder and CEO of Camp Casey, started the organization as a way to honor a dear friend she had met while working at a farm during her college years. The friend, Casey, was about nine or 10 and would come to the farm to go horseback riding. Reeser described her as smart and outgoing, with a funny and sarcastic zest to her personality.
“The friends that took her riding had learned about Casey because she was going through treatment for bone and brain cancer and she was an animal fanatic,” Reeser said. “It touched everyone who knew Casey to know her childhood was being robbed from her. Her family would come to the farm and see that that was where she could receive some normalcy.”
“About a year and a half after meeting Casey, she passed away and obviously it was devastating for everyone who knew her … so a few friends and I decided we wanted to do something to honor her memory,” Reeser explained.
After throwing around different ideas, Reeser and her friends at the barn realized they needed something more fun rather than symbolic to truly honor Casey’s legacy. They decided to host a one-day only horse camp free to the children and families of kids battling cancer.
“We gathered 20 families and we also invited their families because we saw from Casey that this was a very family-focused disease and it affects everybody. Her brother used to come to the farm and he enjoyed watching her become a normal kid so it was important to us to not only invite the kids that were sick but also the brothers and sisters and moms and dads,” said Reeser. The day was a huge success and Casey’s legacy had truly been honored.
Young boy giving a “yee-haw” during a Horsey House Call.
“A week later after that one-day event, I received a letter from this little boy and it said ‘thank you for the best day of my life.’ He was only five years old at the time and he was going through brain cancer. I remember thinking if this was the best day of his life, this wasn’t that hard to pull off so let’s see if we can do it again,” reflected Reeser.
The group repeated the event once a month for a while. Camp Casey soon learned that gathering 20 kids who are all immune suppressed becomes very difficult with treatment schedules and the individual kids’ daily statuses. At one particular event, a child was sent home due to her health condition.
Reeser decided they needed to do something even more special to bring a little bit of happiness to the young girl. Camp Casey decided to bring a horse to her house when she was in a better health state. “It was truly a magical moment, the girls started screaming and jumping up and down and we said ‘meet us out back, we’re here with Camp Casey’ and we ended up putting on a mini version of the one-day Camp Casey outing right there in their yard,” reflected Reeser. “While all this was happening, I was thinking this is what we need to do. Instead of gathering all these kids at one time, we need to be coming to them because we can tailor the day around…whatever it might be that would make it difficult to gather.”
A young girl answers the door for her Horsey House Call.
The idea eventually evolved into the current permanent no-cost programs that Camp Casey offers: Horsey House Calls, Cowboy Campouts and Outlaw Outings.
“All three serve kids with cancer, sickle cell disease and aplastic anemia along with their family and many times, the whole community. For example, in the horsey house call program, the whole community really rallies around the family,” added Reeser.
The Horsey House Call program is the most unique. “Once the date is established, we show up and we basically do everything. We set up craft tables and pizza tables and buckets for the kids to sit on. It is for the child going through treatment and the brothers and sisters and they can invite ten friends. The idea behind that is that we want to bring the whole community together to embrace this family,” said Reeser.
A lot of times the families notice that friends and neighbors retreat when they find out about the child going through cancer because they don’t want to talk about it. The kids also experience bullying at school because they might look, talk or act different because of the treatment they’re going through.
The Cowboy Campout program is more common for teenagers, but any family is welcome. “We scholarship them to go on an all-expense paid horseback riding vacation. We operate the program twice each summer out of the Double J Ranch which is just north of Muskegon. We rent out 10 of the luxury cabins and invite 10 families who are going through similar experiences to come unite in an unplugged environment where they’re able to simply relax.”
While it may seem simple, the ability to relax seems impossible for these families. This program invites them to have a stress-free weekend.
Camp Casey serves about 30 Horsey House Calls every season, as well as two Cowboy Campouts and multiple Outlaw Outings. The signature programs are only offered one time per person. The Outlaw Outings are for past program participants. These events are a way for families to connect with other families going through similar experiences and for the families to stay in touch with Camp Casey. These outings may be a spa day, a Tigers game or any other one-day excursion, all of which are donated by local companies.
“We serve on average, 1,600 people per year…We have a three-person full-time staff, many seasonal employees, and about 500 volunteers. They make what we do possible,” said Reeser.
Reeser loves to see the sheer joy on the faces of everyone involved- from the kids and volunteers, to the parents who are crying out of happiness rather than fear. Reeser invites anyone who would like to learn more to volunteer with Camp Casey. “It’s a beautiful experience to witness. I invite anyone who’s reading this to witness it firsthand. There’s really no words I could use that would describe the feeling of this organization and program.”
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Photos courtesy of Camp Casey