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Kids take time out of fighting cancer to ride and relax

At an indoor riding arena filled with birdsong, the sweet odor of hay, and soft soil under foot and hoof, Caralyn Reynolds got to forget about cancer for a day.

For once, the 8-year-old wasn’t thinking about her brain tumors. Or the weekly trips to Women and Children’s Hospital for treatment. Or how the disease has cheated her out of a normal, healthy childhood.

On Sunday, Caralyn and 29 other children ages 6 to 14 with cancer stories like hers were treated to an afternoon of therapeutic horse rides, arts and crafts, and other fun activities at the Buffalo Therapeutic Riding Center as part of the first Stephen’s Fun Day, an event intended to give kids and their families a welcome respite from the day-to-day grind of cancer treatment and recovery.

The event was named in honor of Stephen A. Comunale Jr., a native of Akron and longtime horse lover who in 2006 died at age 27 of stomach cancer. The Stephen A. Comunale Jr. Family Cancer Foundation, which Stephen’s family founded in his honor, partnered with the therapeutic riding center and two local cancer support groups – Carly’s Club at Roswell Park Cancer Institute and Guiding for Hope of Children’s Hospital – to host the event.

Monica Comunale-Stevens, a Foundation board member and Comunale’s aunt, was on hand to see young cancer survivors enjoy the same facilities her nephew frequented as a young boy. She said that interacting with animals was a uniquely soothing experience for children.

“There’s just something about that connection. For a child I think it’s exciting – they’re not afraid,” she said.

Riding center board member Jessica Marinelli echoed Comunale-Steven’s sentiments, saying that the horses “really just bond with the kids when the kids are riding them.”

“You look at how kind they are,” Marinelli said of the horses. “They stand; they’re quiet. The kids are excited, they’re nervous, they want to pet them. They’re like big stuffed animals to them.”

Laura McFeely, a representative of Guiding for Hope, said horses are uniquely suited to help get the children’s minds off their cancer ordeals.

“A lot of kids have dogs and cats in their lives, but horses are something so different. They’re huge, but they’re gentle giants almost,” she said. The experience of getting up close and personal with such special animals lifted kids’ spirits, she added.

Of course, horses can be intimidating creatures at first glance. The 15 horses in the riding center’s therapeutic program were donated to the center after careers as a champion show horses, and each of them towered over the kids, most of whom had little to no prior exposure to horses.

To help make each kid’s first ride as smooth as possible, volunteers from the riding center clustered around the rookie riders, showing them how to properly mount the animal and providing encouragement and stability as the horses were led around the indoor riding arena.

Robin Hace of Carly’s Club called the event “a great way to celebrate survivorship.” Seeing these kids, many of whom had been lying in hospital beds in critical condition not too long ago, be able to ride a horse was special, she said.

“It’s something special to be able to take cancer survivors and put them in a room together to say, ‘You made it through such a difficult time of your life,’ ” Hace said.

Event organizers hope to expand future editions of Stephen’s Fun Day to include more kids, even those whose cancer treatments make it unsafe for them to venture out into the relatively germ-infested confines of a stable.

“We wanted to start out a little bit small this year just because we felt that we wanted to do it right,” explained Susan Schoellkopf, who in addition to being executive director of the riding center is a board member with the Stephen A. Comunale Jr. Family Cancer Foundation.

For her part, Caralyn enjoyed her day at the riding center. “I thought it’d be cool to ride a horse,” she said.

Caralyn’s mother, Jennifer, of Grand Island, teared up at the sight of her daughter smiling as she rode around the arena on horseback.

“She is just having amazing experiences in the middle of this journey that she’s on,” said Reynolds. “The people that we’re meeting, the generosity of so many, and just the genuine love and giving of themselves, and all the volunteers that are here today – it’s incredibly overwhelming and amazing.”