When Molly Met Casey
Molly Reeser met Casey Foote in 2002.
Casey was 10 years old. Molly was 19 and an undergraduate at Michigan State. The two of them were spending time at the same farm in Haslett, MI. Molly was there because she’d responded to an advert in the State News for a job working on that farm. Casey was there because she loved animals “just the same way I did” Molly remembers.
When asked about the girl at the barn, Molly recalls, “She – as just this little spitfire with her bald head – would run into the arena, in the middle of a very expensive lesson that was taking place, to scoop up these little baby birds that would have fallen from the rafters in the indoor riding arena. And of course, she would run straight to me and she would say, ‘Here you go, Molly. Take this home and nurse it back to health.” Molly did her best to heal the broken creatures. “I truly did try… and I failed every time.” Like the short lives of the baby birds, the short life of Casey Foote would remain with Molly, long after she was gone.
Horsey house calls are Camp Casey's unique form of therapy. The partnership between the Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Association and Camp Casey ensures that horses are available for these special events while promoting the legacy of the black soldiers who make up a key piece of US history.
Casey, that tender-hearted ten-year-old, was undergoing treatment for brain and bone cancer. But the barn in Haslett provided a unique refuge for the child experiencing what no child should have to experience. Connecting with horses allowed Casey to be a kid again; it gave her and her family a place of ease during their difficult fight. When Casey was at the barn, she and her family were able to see a transformational change in the girl who traded her hospital gown for riding boots.
Not two years later, she would lose her battle with cancer. But the end of Casey’s life sparked something new in Molly.
Molly has told the story of this friendship many times. For more than 20 years, she has commemorated Casey and the remarkable young woman that she was. But, “I think a misconception that a lot of people have about my story involving Casey is that we were really close and I knew her for a lifetime, and she was a sister to me.” The two of them knew each other for only about 18 months. “It was in that short period of time that we just had a remarkable friendship… I feel very proud that my relationship with Casey now is almost stronger than it was when I knew her in the flesh.”
Maybe this is itself a testimony to Casey: less than two years of friendship with her could change a human life, could change a community forever. Camp Casey, now almost 20 years old, was founded not only to remember the young woman who died too soon but also to offer the same joy and refuge that Casey found around horses.
Where Grief Meets Joy
Camp Casey is a non-profit that provides equestrian experiences for families of children with life-threatening illnesses in the greater Detroit Area. They are a tight operation—only five employees on the all-women team, “and that's by coincidence” Molly chuckles.
Alex has worn many hats, but she currently serves as the Operations Manager. Lindsay, who also has a long history with Camp Casey, now works as the program manager and passionate organizer of the supplies closet. Then there’re Isobel and Rebecca who work respectively as the Development Manager and the Program & Volunteer Coordinator. Of course, Molly is the founder and director.
The team has a tradition of calling each other “cowgirls.” When they introduce themselves to campers at their programs or when they refer to each other, it’s Cowgirl Lindsay or Cowgirl Isobel. It’s a fun thing for the kids — especially the littlest ones who are often thrilled that they get to meet “a real cowgirl.” But you also get the sense that it is a way of reminding one another that they are capable, that they’ve got real grit, that their work is hard and it matters.
The sisterhood of Camp Casey shows through in just about every aspect of their work.
From the looks of it, everyone does everything. No one is above moving boxes, loading trailers, or mucking stalls. The office hums with warmth and a love for coffee matched only by Lorelai and Rory’s. “We're a team of five women who are all extremely passionate. And I think that is appealing to people because we are always going out there in the world and engaging with people and networking and interacting with people,” says Isobel.
That passionate team runs a quartet of programs for campers and their families. There is the Cowboy Campout Weekend that takes 10 families away for three days of hay rides, bonfires, and horse trails. There is the Outlaw Outing that brings the whole Camp Casey family together for a big fall event at the Buffalo Soldiers Stable in Rouge Park. Third is the Lonestar Getaway—their COVID innovation—that gave families the relief of a vacation when, for so many, respite was hard to find.
It seems, though, that the program they are best known for is the “Horsey House Call.” In simplest terms, it provides a party for one camper and several of their friends, by bringing a horse right to their front door. But more profoundly, the Horsey House Calls provide joy and respite in the home of a family in difficult times.
If it’s hard to talk about life-threatening diseases, it’s that much harder to talk about them when the lives they threaten are young. There appears to be no way around the simple and unvarnished tragedy of it: children fighting for their lives. But the staff at Camp Casey don’t walk on eggshells. Even when they tell stories that didn’t end happily, they are not shy. They share memories of tragedy just as presently and centeredly as they tell stories of remarkable joy.
“Grief just is a huge part of a family's experience when dealing with a life-threatening illness. But what we want to add is just an element of joy and of celebration. Because the grief is inevitable, but really we want to celebrate the child,” Isobel says.
That attitude, that posture — it’s earned. They move and speak with a confidence that comes from walking alongside hundreds of people, through seasons of deep pain. “I’ve heard all of their stories. And so I feel this deep connection. And so, although what you see is us knocking on a door and opening it and a horse being there…” (that’s a Horsey House Call) “the connection that you have with a family is so much more than just that,” Lindsay says.
Happiness on Horseback
It’s a bright June afternoon in the Detroit suburbs. Cars crawl carefully through the matrix of stop signs, driveways, and manicured lawns. It’s not hard to imagine kids tossing a ball or running through sprinklers, or in another season diving into piles of fallen leaves. It feels like a place where there is rarely interruption – both horses on the doorstep and life-threatening diagnoses feel unforeseen here.
When Camp Casey arrives, somehow both of those unexpected realities are literally on your doorstep.
Horsey House Calls are a surprise to the camper. The parents know, and the friends who have huddled in the yard know. But the camper whose house gets the visit likely has no more predilection that a horse is going to be standing in their yard than you do right now.
Camp Casey arrives with a vibrantly painted trailer. They’ve got a mountain of pizzas, games for days, bins of arts-and-crafts supplies, bandanas, cowboy hats, T-shirts, and — of course — a full-grown horse named Boots who belongs to the Buffalo Soldiers. The staff and volunteers buzz about the yard setting up tables and boxes and a stepping stool to boost you up on the saddle. A once-quiet yard hums with the expectancy of fireworks, just about to explode.
On the day BitterSweet tagged along for a Horsey House Call, the setup was a bit different. Usually the horse and the cowgirls of Camp Casey wait outside on the stoop for the camper to open the door. But this time, we waited in the backyard for our camper, Elli, as her dad opened the big wooden gate.
Everyone shouts, and for a second I almost feel bad for Elli who has to take in a lot of information very quickly. All of my friends are at my house, my whole family is here, a full-grown horse is in my backyard. But she doesn’t seem stunned in the least. Immediately, her face is lit with a beaming smile.
Molly gives the kids a demo on how to care for a horse’s coat. She shows them the brushes and the proper way to use them. One by one, they approach Boots with nervous giggling. Once he’s looking his best, he moves to the front yard. The partipicants take turns riding him around the block, as he cooly saunters along, clapping his hooves on a crackless sidewalk.
When they’re not on their noble steed, attendees decorate shirts, play with hula hoops, paint frames, give each other a bit of chatty advice, or dance around to some Taylor Swift (who happens to be performing downtown that same night).
For those two hours, the atmosphere is carefree. The kids can just be kids. Parents, perhaps for the first time in months, don’t have to worry about anything; they sit in the grass snapping photos on their phones and cheering on the girls as they hop up on horseback. “We have had parents tell us that it's the first time they've been able to eat in weeks because they've been sick to their stomachs; they can't handle eating food from the stress,” Alex says. Then, of course, there’s the horse who seems pleasantly calmed by the admiration of human beings and the chance to naughtily graze this house’s flawless lawn. Things are, for a moment, just as they should be.
Alex tells us, “We literally say we're delivering happiness on horseback.”
After hundreds of these visits, the staff of Camp Casey still talk about Horsey House Calls with first-time excitement. On that June day, the joy and tenderness visible on their faces were entirely uncurbed. When Elli walked into the backyard, the cowgirls screamed along with her friends; as Elli approached that gentle giant with the lowered head, Alex and Lindsay ducked their heads behind a sapling to stealthily wipe tears from their eyes.
Friends of Friends of Casey
Around the five core cowgirls, there is a wide web of organizations that have partnered with Camp Casey in the work.
There’s Black River Farm and Ranch (BR), a summer camp that provides girls with the chance to get some experience with horses. Though there aren’t many shared projects between Camp Casey and BR, the ties between the two run deep. For one, Molly herself was a camper growing up. On the day BitterSweet tagged along for a Horsey House Call, the camper was a “BR girl” and the volunteers for the party were all BR staff.
There’s also Gilda’s Club, founded in memory of the Gilda Radner, herself a Detroit native who died of ovarian cancer. The organization works to “make sure, in short, that anyone impacted by cancer, whether they're an adult, a child, a teenager impacted by cancer themselves, or someone that they care about is never alone or isolated,” says Wendi Henning, Program Manager for Children, Teens, and Families at Gilda's Club Metro Detroit. Camp Casey partners with Gilda’s Club to provide families who are experiencing cancer, in Wendi’s words, “an easy picker-upper.”
She goes on “There are sad days and especially on those sad days, to be able to tell a family, ‘Listen, it seems like you could use a pick me up. Remember that organization I told you about? I think it's time to call them.’ And then, and then all of a sudden we're looking forward to something instead of fearing the future.”
Perhaps Camp Casey’s closest partnership is with the Buffalo Soldiers Heritage Association.
The modern-day Buffalo Soldiers are an intergenerational company of black men who have gathered around a horse barn in Rouge Park built in the late 19th Century. James H. Mills, the current president of the Buffalo Soldiers, remembers how their troop began. “We started back some 20-something-odd years ago. There used to be a group of guys that used to ride herd on horses over in Canada at the Broken Wheel Ranch. The guys were working out there and they came in one day and they both say, ‘you guys look like a bunch of Buffalo soldiers.’ Nobody knew what Buffalo Soldier was. Cause that wasn't a part of our history.”
As in the eponymous song by Bob Marley, Buffalo Soldiers were all-Black regiments in the mid-19th Century who, after the Civil War, were sent west as guards for the growing network of railroads crisscrossing the Great Plains.
“Congress enacted the 9th and 10th Cavalry, 24th and 25th infantry, which had all black soldiers with white officers,” explains James. “That started the movement of them moving west against all odds, because racism still prevailed. But then these were ex-slaves. Some from the north were freed slaves. But they were getting paid, most of them. This was the first time they ever received any kind of money.”
So they traveled West where they found themselves in constant conflict with Native Peoples. “Then, the Planes War between the Native Americans and the United States broke out at its height. This was because the United States was protecting foreign settlers that were taking away the Native Americans’ land. From my perspective, they said, ‘Enough is enough. Let's fight.’ You know?” It left the Buffalo Soldiers in a curious position to say the least: up against folks who had also experienced violence at the hands of European-descended Americans. The conflicts between those black and native soldiers were, reportedly, less severe. “ There was a kind of respect between the two groups.”
After a 30-year run, the Buffalo Soldiers were disbanded. Besides the reggae classic, they seem to have been largely forgotten. As Marley sang, “If you know your history, then you would know where you’re coming from, then you wouldn’t have to ask me who the heck do I think I am.”
James wanted to make sure that people knew their history. “We said, ‘Okay, well… Let's do this. Let's form a unit.’ So we went through the very expensive expense to purchase the equipment that they would've used during that time: the saddles, the rifles, the pistols, all the harnesses for that particular year, which was in 1866. That’s what we were representing.” The kit is on display in the barn’s office: thick wool slacks dyed gray and thick wool jackets dyed Navy Blue, all topped off with bright gold bandanas.
You can find the 21st-century Buffalo Soldiers riding in parades or civic events. They do the occasional school program too. This summer, they were part of the opening ride-out at the Midwestern Invitation Rodeo and the Royal Oak Juneteenth Celebration. But you can be sure that just about every day of the week, they are in Rouge Park maintaining that barn, tending a small garden by the pasture, and keeping their horses well-fed and well-groomed.
These are the horses that Camp Casey uses for just about all of their events. This is the barn where they host their Outlaw Outing. These Buffalo Soldiers are some of Camp Casey’s biggest cheerleaders and collaborators in bringing equine light to dark times. Without their mild-mannered horses, their historic turf, and their endless willingness to lend a hand day-to-day, Camp Casey would be in a much more difficult situation. In Isobel’s words, “Our partnership with the Buffalo soldiers is fundamental to our programming.”
Horses are magic
To a woman, the Camp Casey staff members said these words – Horses are magic – even if they admitted to not really being horse-people otherwise: horses are magic. “I don't have a lot of horse experience,” Lindsay admits. At least, she didn’t before she started as Camp Casey’s Program Manager. Nowadays though, “I just love being around the horses. I feel like I've developed some sort of relationship with them. [The barn] is a very magical place. So I am not a horse person, but I really enjoy my time there.”
Horses are magic. They just are.
I have never been — by any stretch of the imagination — a cowboy. I did not grow up on great tracts of land. I own no part of the giddy-up-get-up. I assume I rode a horse at some point in my childhood, but I honestly couldn’t tell you when that was. My life has been, almost entirely, a horse-free zone.
Still, I asked for a horse every birthday and Christmas until I was probably eight years old. The tearful earnestness that welled up in me when I talked about horses must have been baffling to my parents, who were raising me far from anything one might call equine. “I’ve just…” I told my mother one year, “I’ve just got a horse-shaped hole in my heart!”
*cue the big eyes*
That year, my grandfather painted me a portrait of a horse standing alone in a field and titled it “Waiting for Peter.” It was poor consolation. (It now makes a great wall piece.)
I share all this because I doubt I was alone as a child with a “horse-shaped hole in their heart” but no actual horse-experience. More than a few of us have had at least a “horse phase.” Don’t you remember what Lil’ Sebastian did to even Ron Swanson’s ironclad soul? As Wendi said, “even kids who aren't into horses are into horses.”
Maybe it’s because horses are in all the movies and paintings. Maybe it’s because they hold a centuries-deep place in our cultural memory. Maybe it’s the sheer size of them — equal parts unnerving and comforting. Whatever it is, horses are magic and that magic seems to be healing.
In fact, horses have routinely been incorporated into therapies of various kinds “since the early 1970s.” A handful of studies have attempted to capture some empirical evidence to back up the magic. One even suggested that a horse’s heart rate may mirror the heart rate of a human being with whom they are interacting. It’s not my field, but it’s interesting, to say the least.
“Horses are magical and I think all of us know that, says Molly. “They're 1200-pound beasts that drop their heads when they see a child and allow us to pet them and braid their hair and groom them and trust us enough to allow us to sit on their backs and give us a ride.”
Camp Casey endeavors to share what Casey Foote herself experienced nearly 20 years ago: a light of joy that can shine, however briefly, in the darkness of disease. It just so happens that the centuries-old relationship between humans and horses is an ongoing place of joy and respite. You don’t have to be a horse person. You don’t have to know how to groom them. You don’t even have to have ridden one before. They’re magic.