The nonprofit foundation brings hats and smiles to pediatric patients.
The license plates in the parking lot of Children’s Hospital Colorado in Aurora, just outside of Denver, say it all. I see cars not just from Colorado but from New Mexico, Nevada, North Dakota, and other states in the West. Ranked by U.S. News and World Report as one of the top pediatric oncology programs in the country for the last decade, this hospital on the University of Colorado Anschutz Medical Campus attracts people with sick children from all over.
I’m here to find out more about a very special group called the Cowboys Who Care Foundation. The volunteer-based nonprofit brings cowboy hats to kids in treatment. The foundation’s first and most frequent supporter, Resistol, has provided thousands of free hats in various sizes and styles, with a special comfort-fit liner that helps children with scalp sensitivity. To date, the foundation has given away more than 9,000 hats.
I find the volunteer department, where a group of eight meet up for a day of bringing smiles to kids who are going through something tough. In addition to 2019’s Miss Rodeo Kansas Brooke Wallace, who serves as a Cowboys Who Care ambassador and is now Miss Rodeo USA, and 2019’s Miss Rodeo Colorado Kellie Stockton, we’re also joined by several parents whose children, former patients here, are in remission. Waiting for us is a wagon full of Resistol cowboy hats from Cowboys Who Care, along with spurs and buckles courtesy of the National Little Britches Rodeo Association.
Wallace got involved with Cowboys Who Care when she saw an ad on Facebook asking for “cowboys” who wanted to volunteer for hospital visits. “As Miss Rodeo Kansas , that was something that really interested me, as I had a platform to really help them out,” Wallace says. “I’ve been to four or five hospitals during my reign as Miss Rodeo Kansas and can’t say enough about Cowboys Who Care, as they truly have their hearts in the right place and work very hard to set up these hospital visits.”
The reward for Wallace is seeing the expressions on the kids’ faces when they’re given a cowboy hat. “[It’s] so joyous,” she says. “A children’s hospital wing is not always the happiest place to be, so we came into Children’s Hospital Colorado with our happy faces, gave them a hat as well as spurs and belt buckles, and told them they could be a cowboy or cowgirl too.”
Before boarding the elevator to the oncology unit, our Cowboys Who Care contingent stops off at Seacrest Studios (a nonprofit media initiative providing programming to pediatric hospitals) in the lobby. There we meet Ralph the therapy dog, a yellow Labrador who’s keeping several of the less-critically ill kids company. The atmosphere is relaxed and buoyant.
We head for isolation and don gloves, gowns, and masks. Then we set off on rounds, gently putting cowboy hats at the foot of empty beds for children to enjoy later.
We visit 7-year-old Cross, who is here being treated for leukemia. He lights up as he puts on a big straw cowboy hat and holds a Little Britches belt buckle. We speak with two young teens about their love of horses. Ally, age 13, rode her first horses in New Zealand — a chestnut named Arrow and a gray named Stella — before she got sick. “Maybe I’ll be a cowgirl when I get better,” Ally says. Kuma, age 12, rode her first horse at a camp in Denver (“a tall one who wanted to go very fast”) and hopes to continue riding when she is able.
Though we’re here in Colorado, Cowboys Who Care is based in Rhome, Texas. Founded in 2012 by comedian and writer William Lee Martin and his wife, Michele, the foundation states its mission is “providing smiles, support, and free brand-new cowboy hats to boys and girls with cancer and other life-threatening illnesses.” The inspiration behind it was a teen from Celina, Texas, named Ashley Miller, who was fighting a rare form of cancer. Martin met Ashley when he was headlining a fundraiser on her behalf. Unfortunately, Ashley did not survive, but Martin was so moved by her that he decided to do something to honor her memory and help other sick children. He did an internet image search of “kids with cancer” and found photo after photo of “big, beautiful smiles and bald heads.” Seeing his own cowboy-hatted reflection in the mirror, Martin realized those kids needed cowboy hats.
Almost 10 years on, Cowboys Who Care gets requests for hats every week. “We have recently started the Request a Hat program at cowboyswhocare.org, where, without a hospital visit, parents can order a hat free of charge with no shipping cost,” Martin says. “This year we’re also adding a scholarship program for kids who have survived pediatric cancer.”
But hospital visits remain at the heart of the program. Over the last year, Cowboys Who Care volunteers have taken hats in person to kids at Sunrise Children’s Hospital in Las Vegas during the National Finals Rodeo; Wesley Children’s Hospital in Wichita, Kansas; Children’s Medical Center Dallas; and Mary Bridge Children’s Hospital in Tacoma, Washington, among others.
My visit to Children’s Hospital Colorado left me with poignant, indelible memories. A mother who has been by her daughter’s side nonstop alerting the desk that she needs the private bathroom door unlocked so she can take a shower. A family of five, with rowdy and tired children in a wagon, there to support their little brother, who is in isolation. The “Tween Zone,” where non-isolation patients and their friends and family hang out together playing games and listening to music. The high-wattage smiles of the rodeo queens and the heart-tugging grins they put on the faces of the kids wearing their new cowboy hats.
Not everyone who gets a hat will get a happy outcome. But as I leave, in the noncritical-care unit, they’re throwing a party for an 8-year-old girl who has just finished her final round of chemotherapy. Ward nurses unveil a celebratory cake. The family raise their arms in a canopy as the child, proudly sporting her cowboy hat, excitedly runs beneath, climbs a stepstool, and rings the hospital’s “Warrior Bell.” It proclaims this victorious message: “Ring this bell/For to tell/Of heroic deeds worthwhile/Your treatment is done/The battle has been won/Now it’s time to smile.”
Photography: Images courtesy Cowboyswhocare.org
From our July 2020 issue.