Mundy Township, MI. – Nicky Stalder snuck out from the small party in his grandparents’ backyard, but stopped in his tracks when he caught a glimpse of an unusual sight. Chief, the 26-year-old horse, was standing in the front yard.
Adorned in a cowboy hat, four-year-old Nicky’s eyes locked onto Chief before he quickly spun around and returned to the back.
“He ruined his surprise,” someone said as the group of horse handlers chuckled. Most of them were volunteers for Camp Casey, who were helping execute a “horsey house call”.
Surprise or not, it was already a big day for Nicky. “This honestly is our first summer in like three years that we’re able to go outside and do things,” said his mom, Sarah Stalder .
In April of 2019, when Nicky was eighteen-months-old, he was diagnosed with Acute lymphoblastic leukemia, the most common type of childhood cancer, affecting the blood and bone marrow.
“The first year of treatment is really aggressive,” said Nicky’s dad Blake Stalder . Noting that even before the COVID-19 pandemic began, their family had to be extremely cautious and isolated from health risks. “He was already wearing a mask,” Sarah said.
One of Nicky’s patient advocates mentioned Camp Casey to Sarah and Blake.
Camp Casey is a non-profit based in Farmington Hills, Mich. that provides horseback riding programs to children with life-threatening illnesses.
Molly Reeser, the founder of the program, was a journalism student at Michigan State University eighteen years ago. She would work part-time teaching horseback riding lessons for extra money. While teaching there, she became fast friends with ten-year-old Casey Foote, an animal lover battling bone and brain cancer.
Reeser saw how therapeutic being around horses was for Foote and her family. Sadly, Foote succumbed to her illness just after her 12th birthday. Their relationship inspired Reeser to begin the journey to open Camp Casey in her legacy.
The program offers a variety of cost-free opportunities for families. The “horsey house call” is just one of their services, where a mix of staff and volunteers load up a horse in a trailer and make a surprise visit to children who are too sick to go to a traditional camp. It includes a horse safety lesson, a grooming session, horseback rides, an arts and crafts project, and a pizza party.
Camp Casey works with a variety of horse owners around Michigan to limit the amount of travel time for the animals. They try to not keep a horse in the trailer for longer than 45 minutes.
When the Stalder’s heard about the opportunity, Sarah was quick to apply on Nicky’s behalf.
“It means everything. This is just amazing. We haven’t been able to do anything like this in years. Everybody here has done so much for us, we have family friends here who helped us with our lawn service and a lot of other things, and family who have watched Ollie for us while Nicky was in the hospital. It’s kind of our way of doing something for them, too, especially their children. They’re all gonna be very surprised,” Blake expressed.
Ollie is Nicky’s twin brother. “It’s not easy” Blake said, in regards to Nicky’s diagnosis. Ollie, while being a supportive brother, has to remain isolated, too, and when Nicky is getting treatment, Ollie has to stay with friends and family.
“Ollie today was already saying it’s the best day of his life and he doesn’t even know what’s happening,” Blake mentioned.
By this point, the Midland-based family had already gathered a small backyard party in Sarah’s parents’ backyard in Mundy Township, just outside of the Flint city limits, with close friends and family, including all of their children.
The Stalder’s hadn’t had the opportunity to gather like that in three years because of Nicky’s immunocompromisation.
“This is definitely a reflection of where we are in Nicky’s journey. He’s in a good spot so we’re able to celebrate and take advantage and enjoy the little things. For Camp Casey to put this service on it’s really special. We wouldn’t have had the opportunity to do something like this otherwise,” Blake said.
Though Nicky caught a sneak peek of Chief, he remained tight-lipped when he returned to the back yard where the other guests were hanging out. The Camp Casey staff guided all of the cowboys and cowgirls to a spot on the lawn to be surprised by their equine visitor.
When Chief turned the corner into the yard, the childrens’ faces lit up with excitement. Nicky was the first to approach the horse, which stood about triple his height, petting him on his soft nose.
The group followed Chief back to the front yard where the staff set up a circle of feed buckets for the children to sit on while they went through a horse safety lesson, and learned about all the proper brushes for grooming.
One by one, each child got the opportunity to brush Chief to prepare him for their rides around the yard, standing on their tip-toes to reach the horses belly and back.
After that, the group headed to the backyard where an arts and crafts table was set up. The children each painted a wooden frame decorated with foam stickers of various farm animals while the Camp Casey team saddled up Chief.
Once he was ready, they brought him around back to start the horseback rides.
Nicky stood first in line, an excited smile erupting from his face. Equine therapist Charlotte Bass lifted the little one up into the saddle, which had child-length stirrups attached.
Bass gave a quick instruction on how to steer the horse, and Nicky yelled “walk on, Chief!”
Volunteers helped guide Chief and Nicky around the sprawling backyard, Nicky’s joy was apparent. As they walked, family and friends cheered from the sidelines. “You are so brave!” Sarah expressed with emotion.
Ollie waited in anticipation for his turn. Once he got up on Chief, he put one hand in the air and yelled “yee haw!” A phrase he learned from his favorite movie character, Woody, from Toy Story.
After each child got the opportunity to ride, the party-goers enjoyed some pizza together.
“It was wonderful, the kids had so much fun, we’re so lucky. I didn’t know there would be so many volunteers. For people to take time out of their weekend for people they don’t know, it’s just so nice,” Sarah said after processing the day. Stating that the twins are now horse lovers.
For more information on Camp Casey and their cost-free services, click here.