MaKayla Muir’s fight to help pediatric cancer patients
MaKayla Muir has been riding horses for only a few years, but she learned quickly how difficult it is to be around the animals without smiling.
Even during her darkest times battling a rare form of cancer, the 14-year-old always forgot whatever was wrong while around the four-legged animal.
She first started riding while at Camp Boggy Creek in Eustis, a free program that helps children with serious medical conditions forget their illness. Muir first went to the camp after being diagnosed with Crohn’s disease.
“They have a farm facility there with horses, and every day when they let us pick what activity to do, I’d pick the same thing,” Muir said. “I’d go ride that same horse.”
Riding that white horse, Jerry, on the trails at the camp sparked Muir’s passion.
“I liked horses before that, but that was kind of like the gateway,” Muir said. “That’s when I started loving horses. … That was really my first experience with horses, and it just let me forget being sick. Horses don’t look at people funny if they’re wearing a mask or have something else because of treatment, or if they act different because they had to have brain surgery or something like that. It’s just the perfect way to forget.” Her passion for horses grew when she got the most devastating news of her young life two days before Christmas in 2009. She was diagnosed with cancer after discovering a solid tumor in the soft tissue of her left hand.
“I just saw a lump the size of a grape on the palm of my hand around Thanksgiving,” Muir said. “It showed up almost overnight.”
What followed was two surgeries, 45 weeks of chemotherapy and a month of radiation. She went into remission more than a year ago, but still has follow-up exams every three months.
“She’s fought through it,” said Muir’s mother Sheri Balent. “It’s a rare, aggressive type of cancer. Only about 350 kids in the United States get it each year. It can be pretty devastating and we still are afraid every three months when we go in for checkups.
Muir said she thought of the next time she’d get to ride horses while going through the grueling treatments.
“It really helped me get through being sick from the chemo and everything else,” Muir said.
It didn’t take long for Muir to start spreading that same joy to other kids with cancer.
“I’d taken friends riding before, but I wanted to do it with a lot of people, kind of like a party,” Muir said. “That’s when it clicked.”
She named the program MaKayla’s Hands on Horses, a nonprofit group, about a year ago, run out of Quantum Leap Farm, 10401 Woodstock Road in Odessa. The program allows pediatric cancer patients to learn how to ride for free.
“It makes me so happy to see them happy and let them forget the pain or what doctor appointment they have to go to,” Muir said. “I’m happy that they can just temporarily smile. When I had to worry about that all the time it was really stressful, so it’s really good to see them happy.”
The program also has family fun days several times a year, which includes many families coming to the farm for riding lessons, games and other activities.
“It’s just amazing to see how happy these kids are, and it’s also great to see the parents smile when they see their kids having a fun time,” Balent added, “It’s so exciting to be at a family fun day. So many of the kids can’t do a lot of things because of their health, so it’s all smiles the whole day.”
The last family fun day was in June and they will have another in September, which is Childhood Cancer Awareness Month.
Muir said one of her goals is to offer family retreats similar to Camp Boggy Creek. Balent said Muir has asked people to only give to the program instead of receiving gifts for her 15th birthday, which is July 15.
“I’d like to have more sponsors so we can involve more families,” Muir said. “Right now we have 1Voice, so it would be great to have more help to expand the services.”
People can call the farm, (813) 920-9250, to schedule a lesson or to learn more about the program.