What’s the Deal with the Imus Ranch?

Hometown Heroes, People
on August 21, 2005
Eric Swanson The Imuses are involved virtually every waking hour and definitely every working hour.

There is great fascination nationally about the Imus Ranch, a working cattle ranch located in Ribera, N.M., 50 miles northeast of Santa Fe, that serves as a cowboy boot camp to children with cancer and blood diseases. Talk show host Don Imus broadcasts his weekday morning show from a studio on the ranch during the summer, and Architectural Digest recently featured the ranch in one of its covers, but few people have actually seen it. Sen. John Kerry was a recent visitor, and singer/author Kinky Friedman, now a Texas gubernatorial candidate, has made the trek West to visit Imus, his longtime friend.

But the ranch is not a place for hangers-on. It is a working cattle ranch, and those not working with the cattle or horses are devoting 14-hour days to the children who have been invited to spend a week at the 4,000-acre retreat. Don and his wife, Deirdre, are the only volunteers; everyone else is paid and has a full day’s worth of responsibilities. The ranch crew is small, which contributes to the warm family atmosphere.

American Profile answers some frequently asked questions about the Imus Ranch:

Q: How much are Don and Deirdre Imus really involved?

A: The Imuses are involved virtually every waking hour and definitely every working hour. "They are hands-on involved every day," says Samantha Imus, a child life specialist who is married to Imus’ nephew. "It is very demanding and a huge responsibility. It’s go, go, go, go, from 4:40 in the morning for those who go to the show, until 9 that night. There is no break."

The Imuses, along with son Wyatt, 7, accompany the children on every horse ride and exercise and eat every meal with them (except for some breakfasts when Don is still on the air). Don wakes at 3 a.m. to prepare for his morning show, which begins at 4 a.m. A child life specialist brings any interested kids—some days all 10 kids show up, while a few choose to sleep in on other days—down to the studio about 4:45 a.m. Deirdre meets with the children at 6 a.m. and follows them on their morning rounds of feeding the animals. After breakfast, Deirdre assists the children as they complete chores, such as cleaning the barn. When Don’s show ends, he joins them, and the horse rides begin. After eating lunch with the children, the Imuses get an hour to themselves while the children swim, nap or write home. That is the couple’s only time to return phone calls or conduct business.

Mid-afternoon, the Imuses work with the children again on either riding horses or roping, and then follow them in a pick-up truck as they feed the animals again. After dinner, the children go to town, where they gather in the dance hall to shoot pool, make arts and crafts or play games. Deirdre usually accompanies them, and Don makes frequent appearances, which makes for a late night for the early riser.

"It is total involvement, from the recipes, food, clothing, all aspects of the ranch," says Dennis Benjamin, ranch chef. "They are totally involved in everything to make sure it’s right for the kids, from outfitting them in the right sizes to making sure they have the right horses for them. They oversee everything the kids do here. They are right there riding with them and in the kitchen and barn with them. They show them by example."

But Imus dispels any notions that he should be commended for dedicating his summers to children. "It’s not that we’re patting ourselves on the back," he says. "We just came up with the original idea and saw it through. There was no sacrificing at all.

"What are we sacrificing? That is what I don’t get when we are asked that. I don’t know what we would be doing if we hadn’t done this. A lot of our peers go to St. Bart’s. We have no interest: this is what we want to do."

Q: Have there been investigations into ranch operations by government authorities?

A: Neither the New York or New Mexico attorneys general have launched investigations, despite what has been reported in some media outlets. New York Attorney General Eliot Spitzer asked some questions about the ranch’s finances after the Imus Ranch entered a tax filing extension, but he closed his inquiry in March without finding any impropriety, according to The New York Times. Sam Thompson, a spokeswoman for the New Mexico Attorney General, says that office did not investigate the ranch either. "We had just been in contact with him," she says. "We did not feel that all of the information that should have been provided had been provided. We corresponded with the attorney, asking for clarification and additional information, which we received."

Q: Where do they find children to participate?

A: The ranch receives referrals from hospitals with hematology oncology units, says Janeene Grassie, ranch coordinator. The ranch began working with referrals from Hackensack University Medical Center in Hackensack, N.J., and now has branched out to include St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital in Memphis, Tenn., Doernbecher Children’s Hospital in Portland, Ore., Sacred Heart Hospital/Nemour’s Children’s Clinics in Pensacola, Fla., University of New Mexico Hospital in Albuquerque, N.M., Eastern Maine Medical Center in Bangor, Maine, and New York’s Columbia Hospital.

The ranch had its first international group this summer when 10 children came from Italy. This was arranged after Italian medical officials saw Don and Deirdre’s appearance on The Larry King Show on CNN.

"We are just trying to get the word out to different hospitals," Grassie says. "We usually work with a child life specialist or social worker who works with the families and have an idea of a family who might meet our medical criteria.

Q: How are children eligible to attend?

A: The children must be between the ages of 11 and 16 (although an exception was made for a 17-year-old boy this summer) and must be medically cleared by their physicians. To receive this clearance, says Samantha, they cannot be on active chemotherapy, which means the port through which chemotherapy was administered has been removed. "Although we do have kids who are taking oral chemo," Samantha says. "That is called maintenance. We do have a few kids who are on maintenance."

It’s preferred that the children have completed their active treatment for at least one year, "for a lot of reasons, both emotionally and physically," Samantha says. "Their bodies aren’t strong enough. Deirdre has mentioned to me that she’s thinking of taking kids who do have ports in the future because kids who have ports swim and do all these things. Their biggest fear all along has been the fear of infection here, with all the dust. It just screams infection. But if their doctors can OK them, it probably will change in the future."

The children must be willing and able to ride a horse. "It is not required that they have even had to look at a horse before, but they have to be willing to learn and to ride for hours," Samantha says.

In addition to children with cancer or blood diseases, the ranch also hosts a session for families who have lost children to Sudden Infant Death Syndrome. "We bring out five families, and there is either a mom or dad from each family, and they bring one child," Samantha says. "The families they look upon are those that have one child because it’s difficult for the parents to determine which ones get to come. They share a room, and it’s the same program. The kids are in one group and the parents are in another group. The kids and their parents are always together for all the meals, rest time and at night."

In previous summers, the ranch has also invited 10 children who have lost siblings to cancer, or parents and children who have lost a child/sibling to cancer.

Q: How often do the children discuss cancer?

A: Although ranch staffers are not allowed to mention the "C-word," the children talk about it easily and often but don’t dwell on it. For instance, Kelly, 11, of Destin, Fla., casually mentioned that since she’s had cancer, her teachers don’t mind if she’s late for school. Some of the children rattle off anecdotes about other camps for cancer children they’ve attended. They speak of cancer very matter-of-factly, like they do their families or any other part of their lives, and then move on to something else.

Q: Why do they only take 10 children at a time?

A: The Imuses set the number of children per week at 10 for several reasons. First, this allows them to quickly know each child’s name and develop a close relationship with each cowpoke. The children do not feel that they are one of numerous children shuttled in and out. They bond quickly with the Imuses, the ranch staff and the other kids. "The smaller number of children is part of the program so they’ll get more individual attention," says Grassie.

In addition, the ranch could not operate the way it does now with more children. Because they are riding working-ranch horses and herding cattle, their safety might be jeopardized if there were more children.

Q: Do all the children enjoy the week?

A: No. While some enjoy every day—and even opt to rise at 4:40 a.m. to see Don’s show every day—a few count the days until the week is done. There is nothing easy about this week. The sun is hot, the work is tiring, and the days are long.

"It is not for everybody," says Tracy Hamilton, landscaper and greenhouse gardener. "There are some kids that go away with an attitude because they are just spoiled. You just can’t get to them. Sometimes I wish they could stay a bit longer. The short time they are here, they work really hard and get up really early. There’s a time for fun and a time for work, and this teaches them responsibility."

But most children have one of the best weeks of their lives. "Most of these have never been away from home or flown," says Nicole Argenzia, a pediatric certified registered nurse from Emerson, N.J. "They have been sick most of their lives, or they come from different situations where they can’t afford to experience something like this. They leave having the time of their life. It’s probably going to be imprinted with them forever."

Says Samantha, "There are a lot of tears on Sunday (when the children leave). There won’t be a dry eye, including Don and Deirdre. Early on, the kids are like, ‘I don’t want to eat soy. I don’t want to get up at 5 a.m.’ Almost every kid who comes through the door applies for a job here. About 80 people come through this door, and I would say 65 apply for a job or beg to come back next year."

Q: What’s the deal with ranch food?

A: "Everything we do here is vegan, and it’s all whole foods," says Benjamin. "Everything is total vegetarian. All the oils we use are organic for cooking, no trans fats. We use something called Veet, which is a soy alternative to chicken."

Many of the dishes come from the 125 recipes in Deirdre’s cookbook, The Imus Ranch: Cooking for Kids and Cowboys, and many of the vegetables come from the ranch’s greenhouse. "They’ll ask what it is and why we are serving it," he says. "I say, ‘Give it a chance.’"

Do the kids like the organic meals? Some do and some don’t. One child was overheard saying he felt sorry for Wyatt, the Imuses’ son, because he could never eat a fast-food meal. In fact, Deirdre says Wyatt’s birthday cakes are even vegan.

As Don has said, after the first day, the kids are so hungry that they would eat dirt. The meat substitutes work better in some dishes than others, but there are plenty of other options if the children don’t feel adventurous. The breakfasts are plentiful and delicious, and the ranch hands mosey up for lunchtime, which proves that the healthy foods must be appetizing.

Q: How does Don act around the children?

A: He doesn’t become a warm, fluffy man when working with the kids. He can be gruff and stern and even curse on occasion, but he’s often the first person to give a compliment or word of encouragement. And like his show, there’s a lot of laughter. Louis, 17, of Gulf Breeze, Fla., says, "Mr. Imus is quite a funny guy; he’s a different kind of funny. He’s not ‘joke, ha-ha’ funny, but it’s the way he acts." Don is here solely because this is how he’s chosen to spend his summer, and his dedication shows.

"If you listen to him on the air and think that is his personality, you would be totally wrong," says chef Benjamin. "He has a whole other side to him—a caring and gentle man who deeply and sincerely cares about these kids.

"It takes a couple of days for the kids to get over the intimidation of the environment and Mr. Imus," Benjamin says. "After awhile, a few of them are calling him ‘Don’ or "Marshal.’"

Q: What do the children think of Don?

A: Like many adults, some of them aren’t quite sure what to think of the tough, lanky cowboy in the dusty black hat. Some of the children arrive knowing that he is a famous broadcaster; others have never heard of him or his show. Since Don is probably quite different from anyone they’ve ever met, the children may be a bit shy around him, especially after he and Deirdre lay down the laws of the ranch a few hours after their arrival. But in a short time, their intimidation is gone, and they don’t hesitate to approach him with a question or comment.

"Mrs. Imus is really nice and she’s more outgoing than Mr. Imus," says Brittany, 12, of Crestview, Fla. "Mr. Imus can scare me sometimes. Other than kind of yelling at us, he’s really nice."

"He has a good rapport with the children," says Argenzia. "He treats them like adults; he treats them like normal people. He respects them as individuals, and they like that. Every teenager wants to be an adult, so by saying, ‘You can get up, you can do your chores, you can do everything we do,’ it makes them feel good. Just allowing them to be part of the family—sitting in their kitchen, eating their food, ‘Just help yourself; this is what we eat, this is what we wear,’ just playing with Wyatt—makes them appreciative and gives them a nice rapport with Don and Deirdre."

Samantha says the Imuses offer the children "tough love. They don’t feel sorry for them at all," she says. "There is no coddling here, unless someone is sick, of course."

Says Amanda, 15, of Ft. Walton Beach, Fla., "It was tough at first because the Imuses are really strict, and they have to have it their way or it’s not right. You have to go about it their way, but then you get used to it. It’s just a different experience, but it’s a good experience. They are real good people. I didn’t even know he was a famous person."

Q: What is Deirdre like?

A: Although Deirdre has the good looks of a Hollywood actress and the sleek body of an athlete, she is a very serious person dedicated to her research of environmental toxins and vegan eating. In fact, she’ll spend her sole hour of rest talking on the phone about recent developments at the Center for Disease Control, or other business relating to her work at the Deirdre Imus Environmental Center for Pediatric Oncology at the Hackensack University Medical Center.

She’s firm but warm with the children, who quickly take to her as their surrogate mother for the week. A no-fuss woman who forsakes makeup and often wears a ponytail, she’s easily approachable, and the kids gather around her and pepper her with questions at every opportunity.

Q: What are Don and Deirdre like together?

A: Don and Deirdre have given at least two memorable joint television interviews. CNN’s Larry King has dubbed them "the Bickersons," and their humorous exchanges during an interview with Tim Russert resulted in calls from other famous couples, such as the political pair Mary Matalin and James Carville, who complimented the Imuses for not presenting politically correct images of marriage.

When the cameras aren’t rolling, there is great affection between the two, who are obviously crazy about each other after 11 years of marriage. Deirdre doesn’t get bowled over by his strong-personality; indeed, she more than holds her own with him. They do have some good-natured arguing and seem to enjoy pointing out the mistakes their spouse makes when leading the children through a warm-up with horses. The children just laugh and them and then return to their duties.

"I wouldn’t have done it myself," says Don, of establishing the ranch. "Without Deirdre, I never would have done it." Responds Deirdre, "Nor would I. The whole magic is us together."

Q: Will there be other ranches that are similar to the Imus Ranch?

A:. "We’ve had other people who want to model a camp after the Imus Ranch, or do something similar to what we’ve done, but when they discover it’s a unique facility and the commitment we’ve made in terms of time, most people can’t do it," Don says. "We have the luxury of having the money to be able to do it. If I couldn’t broadcast from here, we couldn’t do it.

"It would be tough for somebody to do this," he says. "They would have to have the time and inclination. There’s a lot of rich people who could do it, but they don’t." Adds Deirdre, "It’s not for everybody."

Q: Did Don seek out publicity in American Profile?

A: No. The magazine’s executive editor, Charlie Cox, came up with the story idea last year after seeing a copy of Deirdre’s cookbook. We waited until the ranch would be in session again before approaching Imus. To better our chances of getting an interview, I asked a mutual friend, Warner Bros. Records executive Tracy Gershon, to speak to Imus on my behalf. He made it absolutely clear that he didn’t care if we did the story, and that he would only agree to an interview if I spent three days at the ranch so that I would have a thorough understanding of what the children experience.