Camp Casey’s mission is to bring the joy of horses to kids facing life threatening diseases. Their cost-free programs give kids the chance to feel like kids again with horseback riding, trail rides, and barn activities for the whole family. Connecting with horses is therapeutic for kids and families, who are able to come together despite their hardships to focus on having fun. If you’re interested in volunteering, donating, or learning more, click here!
How did you decide to start Camp Casey?
When I was a student at MSU, I took a job working at a barn. That’s where I met Casey, a 10-year-old girl who loved animals, was outgoing and funny— we instantly hit it off. Casey had cancer, which was eye opening for me because I had never been exposed to childhood illness before. 2 years later, at age 12, Casey passed away. It was devastating and I knew I had to do something to honor her memory in an exciting way. I asked the barn if I could take over for a day to host kids from the pediatric oncology center where Casey was treated. We had 20 kids and their families come to that first Camp Casey. We did riding lessons, horse grooming, and crafts. It was such an incredible day that I decided to start hosting monthly events at the barn for the kids. When I graduated, I worked odd jobs while putting everything I had into growing Camp Casey. Now, we are in our 18th season and serve 1,600 participants annually.
Your activities all sound so fun! Can you tell me about some of your programs?
I quickly realized that when working with immunocompromised children, it’s difficult to gather them all together at the same time due to treatment schedules and how sick they are. For example, a 4-year-old girl named Kelly came to our monthly event one day despite being incredibly sick, and she ended up having to be sent to the hospital an hour into the day from a nosebleed. I wanted to do something special to make it up to her, so I borrowed a horse and brought it to Kelly’s house to have a backyard version of Camp Casey. That’s where Horsey Housecalls started. It’s an opportunity to celebrate a family that has been through so much and give kids the magic of Camp Casey from the comfort of their home. We also have Cowboy Campouts, which is a weekend trip for 20 families at a dude ranch. Outlaw Outings are day full of recreation activities, like trail rides and apple picking. All of our programs are completely free for the kids and their families.
Can you tell me about the kids you work with?
We started working with only cancer patients, but expanded to sickle cell disease patients in 2008, and now work with kids with all life threatening illnesses. Our numbers have increased dramatically since opening our scope and we’re really proud of where we’ve come. We do see our share of loss, but out of around 100 diagnosed kids we see, it’s about 5 or 6 deaths per year. Most of them return to Camp Casey year after year and eventually recover. It’s really emotional work, but it’s so rewarding to give these families a day of joy after all they’ve experienced and to help kids feel like kids. We’re finally at a place now where some of our past campers want to come back as volunteers, which is the most amazing compliment. My goal is to have our own barn one day to serve our kids all throughout the year, since the Michigan winters make it difficult for us to do horse-related programming for several months. I’d love to have our own place to call home so we can serve even more kids and families.
What has been the best part of starting Camp Casey?
There have been so many incredible, serendipitous moments through this experience. After that first Horsey Housecall with Kelly, a man stopped us outside to ask what we were doing. I explained and he said that he had a friend who could help us. When I met with his friend, he asked how much money we need to keep the Horsey Housecalls going. I said $50,000, thinking that’s what we needed for a trailer, truck, and supplies. I never heard from him again, but a few months later we received an anonymous check in the mail for exactly $50,000. The date on the check was August 26th, which would have been Casey’s 17th birthday. I could write a book full of crazy moments like that. There’s a lot of hardship and red-tape to keep this going, but it’s all worth it. It’s given me so much perspective on life. When my friends complain about getting older, I think about all the 12-year-olds I’ve met who would love to know that they have the opportunity to live to 40 or 50. I’m lucky to be surrounded by the most compassionate people ever.