As a light summer sprinkle taps on the roof of the horse arena, 14-year-old Crystal Anderson sits atop Teddy, a brown quarter horse, and nervously leads him to the center of the ring. Clad in dusty jeans, roper boots, a red Western shirt and a helmet designed to look like a cowboy hat, this Pensacola, Fla., teen is about to begin her inaugural attempt at herding a cow on the Imus Ranch near Ribera, N.M.
While three bona fide cowboys keep the other five Corriente steers and heifers in a corner, ranch bosses Don and Deirdre Imus and their son, Wyatt, 7, fill in the gaps behind her. As the lone loose cow tries fervently to rejoin the herd, Anderson successfully cuts it off. “Keep up! Keep up! You’re doing a good job,” encourages Don Imus. “Stop! Keep up!”
Anderson quickly learns to maneuver Teddy just where she wants him to go and delivers the day’s finest performance. “That was great for your first time,” Don Imus tells her. Her fear now replaced with pride, she smiles and returns to the rear of the arena to join the other two cutting novices learning the ropes of separating a cow from the herd.
It’s hard to believe that just two days ago, Anderson had never been on a horse and was terrified of even trying. “I was thinking, ‘Are me and this horse going to get along to where he won’t buck me off or do anything outrageous?’” Anderson says. “But it went well; nothing went wrong. I felt proud of myself because I finally did something that I always wanted to do and that I always feared. I learned I can do more and that I am more confident than I think I am.”
That’s music to the ears of Don and Deirdre Imus, who dedicate their entire summer to hosting eight one-week sessions at the 4,000-acre cattle ranch for children who have had cancer or blood disorders, or have lost a sibling to sudden infant death syndrome. But make no mistake: this is no frolicking summer camp or serene high-desert day spa. The Imus Ranch is an exhausting, sunrise-to-sunset boot camp for cowboys and cowgirls designed to instill the values of hard work and the Western lifestyle. “We’re straight shooters with these kids,” says Deirdre, 41. “We lay down the rules the first day here: ‘This isn’t Camp Happy Face.’”
Soon after the 10 wranglers, ages 11 to 17, are outfitted in blue jeans, cowboy boots and hats compliments of Wrangler, Justin and Resistol, they’re given the rules of the cowboy way. There’s no coddling or whining, and they must clean their rooms, make up their beds, do laundry, clear their plates and say, “Yes ma’am.” And no hats on the bed—not bad manners, just bad luck. “It’s about hard work,” says Brittany Thomas, 12, of Crestview, Fla. “It’s just some place that you can have fun and meet new people and do a bit of work each day.”
At least during this week, they are treated like normal, healthy children. In fact, ranch hands aren’t allowed to mention the children’s illnesses. Perhaps for the first time in years, the children are recognized for what’s right with them, instead of what’s wrong with them. It’s their strengths, not their physical weaknesses that set them apart from their peers.
And what cannot be underestimated is the profound bonding experience that occurs when the children gather with nine others who share more than they know. “They talk about surgeries, they talk about hair falling out from the chemo,” says Samantha Imus (who is married to Don’s nephew), a child life specialist who works intimately with the children. “They talk about their experience a lot—at least once during the session, if not a few times. Some don’t want any part of it; they want to be done with it. But there are a bunch of kids who do talk to each other, especially when they are swimming, because they see that most of them have scars from the chemotherapy ports.”
How it all began
At first glance, Don Imus, 65, seems like an unlikely character to launch such a benevolent endeavor. As host of Imus in the Morning, a syndicated morning radio show that is simulcast on MSNBC, he has become known as the consummate curmudgeon, an irascible rascal who rants about politicians and celebrities and peppers his guests with testy questions.
But he’s also a cattle rancher’s son who was raised on The Willows Ranch between Seligman, Ariz. (pop. 456), and Kingman (pop. 20,069). “In those days, there was no electricity there or indoor plumbing,” he says. “There was just a work ethic and sense of hope. Being around horses early in your life, you develop a sense of confidence, just like athletes do.”
During his decades on the air, he also developed a heart for children battling cancer after becoming involved with Tomorrows Children’s Fund, a non-profit New Jersey-based organization that raises money for children with cancer and blood disorders. “They came to the radio station and asked us to raise money for them,” says Imus, who raised $1 million the first year through a radio-thon in 1988. “That was my first exposure to kids with cancer.”
Soon after, he met Deirdre, an actress from Connecticut who had never ridden a horse, and the two married in 1994. They began spending more of their time with sick children. “After working with these kids, we noticed a common theme: They had cancer but they were like normal kids, except they lost their self-esteem,” Deirdre says. “We found no one was actually restoring their self-esteem or dignity.”
Adds Don, “They weren’t being treated as normal kids. They were being treated as sick kids. They were coddled, and appropriately so, by their parents and doctors.”
The Imuses wanted to launch an even bigger project that would return that depleted confidence to the children once they had finished medical treatments. For a while, they just didn’t know what it would be.
But in 1998, while a pregnant Deirdre was exercising on a treadmill, Don came downstairs. He had been researching for an interview with Paul Newman when the idea hit him: “Let’s build a working cattle ranch for kids with cancer.” He told Deirdre, “I remember the best days of my life were on a cattle ranch. It’s such an empowering feeling.”
With little direction, the two began turning their dream into a reality. Using more than $1 million of their own money, they bought the ranch’s original 810 acres. “It’s insane the way we did it,” Don says. “We didn’t have any plan.”
They returned to New York, established a public foundation and began fundraising in earnest. The first morning Imus announced their plans, he raised $4.2 million in three hours. They raised $30 million that year and eventually reached $40 million. It took nearly $25 million to build the ranch, which costs $1.8 million annually to operate.
“We raise $2 million a year,” Don says of the ranch that children attend for free. “We raise about enough to run it.”
The wild, wild West
The children, some of whom have never been on an airplane, don’t know what to expect as they enter the ranch gates. “It’s huge!” says Kelly Davis, 11, of Destin, Fla. “It took about 15 minutes to go from the gate to the hacienda.”
Soon they come upon an eight-building, 1800s Western town complete with general store, dance hall and marshal’s office. “When we pulled up to the town, our eyes just opened, ‘This is awesome!’” says Brittany.
The infirmary is housed in the Black Lamb Saloon, complete with bar, swinging doors and piano. “We wanted the feeling of dating the whole ranch back to the 1800s, back to the time of Wyatt Earp,” Deirdre says. “We had to have an infirmary, so we put it in the saloon, where the kids can belly up to the bar for their meds. It’s about the spirit of entertaining the kids and having an authentic Western experience.”
About a quarter-mile up the dusty road is the 14,000-square-foot hacienda, where the Imuses and children sleep, eat and relax. The Imuses eat every meal with the children as the music of Cowboy Troy and the White Stripes blares from a stereo. “We decided from day one that we were going to do this like a family cattle ranch,” Deirdre says. “That’s why we built the big hacienda. We wanted it to be like Bonanza, with everyone eating together.”
The ranch cuisine is vegan—no meat, dairy, sugar or flour—because Deirdre is committed to providing a non-toxic atmosphere for the children. Many of the pesticide-free vegetables are grown in a nearby greenhouse. As founder of the Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology at New Jersey’s Hackensack University Medical Center, she is passionate about identifying and preventing environmental factors that cause cancer. “It’s very challenging because they are used to eating whatever they want or junk food,” ranch chef Dennis Benjamin says. “As long as you present it to them as something they’ll recognize, that’s half the battle.”
The days begin at 6:15 a.m., when the cowpokes begin their round of chores, such as feeding the various animals scattered around the ranch. After breakfast, half of the children do ranch chores, including planting, watering and gathering eggs, while the others proceed to the barn, where they begin the process of muck removal before grooming, bridling and saddling the horses for a two-hour ride. “These aren’t dude-ranch horses,” Don says. “They are serious horses.”
After lunch and an hour break for swimming or napping, the children switch projects. After dinner, they have about 90 minutes to play board games or pool before lights out at 9 p.m.
The kids are accompanied by the Imuses virtually every hour of the incredibly long and tiring day. The only non-paid ranch workers, Don and Deirdre don’t just run the ranch; they are the ranch. They lead every horse exercise and follow the kids on their daily chores in their pickup truck. Also accompanying the children at all times are two child-life specialists, who are trained in working with medical-needs children, as well as a nurse, doctor or medic who travel in a camouflaged Humvee that serves as an ambulance.
“We were so naïve when we got involved,” Don says. “We thought the kids coming through here have cancer and they get better. Then we had the first kid die. That had an affect on us. Over the past five or six years, about 15 kids have died.”
“It’s tough saying goodbye because you don’t know if it’s going to be goodbye forever,” adds Deirdre, noting that two of every 10 children with cancer will die. “It makes you realize how many kids need help. There’s a list and we can only take so many.
“We get very emotional,” she says. “By the end of the summer, it takes a toll on everybody who works here, but that’s OK because the focus isn’t on us, it’s on the kids.”