By Britney Grover
Portraits by Gilbert B. Hammer
Bedecked in a blue dress polka-dotted with rainbow unicorns, Maeve Rae-Bognar sat beside her mother in their Candor, New York, home with her usual bright grin and her arms wrapped around a rotund stuffed horse. Maeve bounced and giggled through the interview, just like any healthy, happy, horse-loving 9-year-old girl. Now, that’s exactly what she is—and the Rae-Bognar family doesn’t take that for granted.
In 2018, Maeve was diagnosed with acute lymphoblastic leukemia. “In the beginning, you’re just devastated,” Maeve’s mother, Marisa Rae, shared. “There’s just no way around it. It’s like this meteor drops from the sky.”
Maeve was 6 and her older brother, Rowan, was 9 at the time; the family was reduced to one income as Maeve bravely entered the battle for her life, which would take more than two years. “It was 800 days of treatment, beginning to end,” Marisa said. “We couldn’t have done it alone. There was just no way.”
They needed a team. They had good doctors at Golisano’s Children’s Hospital an hour and a half away in Syracuse. They had friends who delivered meals, donated money and supported them however they could. But the team that helped them endure the lengthy treatment and gave them the priceless gift of fun and friendship didn’t wear lab coats. They wore breeches.
Friends of Jaclyn
Maeve and her family discovered horses early in Maeve’s treatment, which began with steroids—and steroid-induced diabetes. “Maeve was about 41 pounds when she was diagnosed—she was tiny. And she gained 23 pounds in the first month,” Marisa explained, sending Maeve sprawling onto the couch in a fit of giggles. “She mostly ate ramen noodles it was hilarious, but scary at the same time, and you have to do a lot of recovery from that.”
As soon as Marisa mentioned horseback riding, Maeve lit up. They found a therapeutic stable, started going once a week and Maeve fell in love. “I liked that there was one horse there, that if I was feeling happy, the horse would be happy; if I was feeling sad, the horse would be feeling sad—and if I was in a sassy mood, then the horse would be in a sassy mood!” Maeve said.
The barn was at the forefront of Marisa’s mind when she connected with the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation, an organization that pairs children with cancer and their siblings to sports teams to improve their quality of life. “You’re always looking for something fun and hopeful, and I thought, Let’s see what they can do; it would be fun to go on a tour or do something fun once or twice with somebody,” Marisa said.
Friends of Jaclyn was founded by Denis Murphy after his then-9-year-old daughter, Jaclyn, successfully beat cancer in the form of a malignant brain tumor. “Having a child diagnosed with cancer, it’s not even your worst nightmare—it’s beyond that,” Denis said. “The magic of Friends of Jaclyn is that these children can feel normal. They go over to Cornell University, or they go to whatever team—baseball, softball, swimming, hockey, you name it—and they get to forget about the beast for a couple of hours.”
With Friends of Jaclyn, it’s not about the sport—it’s about the team. It doesn’t matter if a child hasn’t played the sport of their “adopting” team, but with Maeve’s newfound love of horses, the Cornell University Equestrian Team was the perfect fit. “I think we’ve all gone through some difficult times, and for all of us on the team, horses were part of how we got through that,” said Head Coach Joanna Novakovic. “I think we all wanted to share the incredible gift of riding and being around horses with someone who really needed it, and thought it could be very therapeutic for mind and body.”
It began with the adoption ceremony. Denis drove up to speak in person; the entire team was there, including Moose, the team horse who quickly formed a special bond with Maeve. “We walked in, without ever having met them before, and it was like Maeve got 30 big sisters,” Marisa said. “Everybody was crying. It was emotional—and fun. Maeve had so much fun riding Moose, and it was amazing.”
“I think the horse knew what was going on,” Denis said. “It’s just so powerful, an animal helping a young girl battling for her life. Who would have thought that? Our mission is to improve quality of life—I’m about what we can do for these kids today, not tomorrow, or next week, or five years from now. Research is important, but what they get from these teams—there’s no chemotherapy, there’s no radiation, there’s no clinical drug trial more powerful than love, support and friendship that they get from the team.”
As far as the team was concerned, Maeve became one of their own. “The team stayed with us; they made everything so much fun,” Marisa said. “We have friends that brought us food; we have friends that gave us money. We have friends that took care of us, and people I could call in the middle of the night if I felt like I was having a panic attack. But there were times that Maeve wanted to leave the emergency room and go to the barn. She was obviously beat. She’d have a line in and say, ‘I just want to drive by and see Moose.’ We would literally drive by the grassy knoll and it took our minds off the cancer, which you need more than anything else, to be honest.”
Moose was Maeve’s favorite horse, and the team gave her a plushie version. Plushie Moose attended every hospital visit and sleeps with Maeve every night—he was even the first and only thing Maeve grabbed when the family headed to the basement during a tornado watch. When Maeve can’t be at the barn, she still has her stuffed buddy to remind her of her bond with the real thing. “Moose is so sweet and funny,” she said, smiling. “There was this one time me and my mom were brushing him and we got everywhere except his head, and then he turned and whacked the lead rope toward my mom and used his nose to push on the brush—he said his face was itchy!”
“He’s like the boss horse,” Marisa added. “He’s really confident and fun, and so safe and careful with her. This horse is just like, ‘I got her. It’s all good, Mom.’ And I’m like, OK, buddy!”
Maeve was at the barn as often as her health allowed. Even outside of the barn, the team was there for her. They hosted a holiday party, went out for ice cream as an entire team with Maeve, and even dressed up Moose as a unicorn escort for a special trick-or-treating they set up just for Maeve and Rowan. “It gave me something to look forward to, and it was really fun,” Maeve said. “The whole team was very kind.”
And while Maeve was enjoying the team, the team was enjoying her. “Maeve is a hoot!” Joanna said. “Very upbeat, very fun, very brave. Her family is also incredible—her mom is a force of nature and her dad is so kind and loving. Maeve couldn’t have had any better advocates. They all impressed me with their great attitude and spirit. I can’t imagine tackling something so immense as a child.”
Throughout the painful and arduous treatment process that often involved middle-of-the-night emergency-room trips, Maeve maintained her friendly and upbeat personality. In the hospital, she was the ambassador of the 11th floor—all the other kids would be lying in bed and Maeve would ask for her pole so she could “do her rounds” and wave to everyone. At the barn, she shined just as brightly.
“Maeve is incredibly strong and brave, and I’m so grateful that she was a part of my time at Cornell,” said team member Lena Reeb. “She is a ray of sunshine and never fails to brighten the world around her. Her unwavering positive energy and enthusiasm has spread throughout the Cornell Equestrian Team and we have been so excited to spend time with her and bond over our mutual love for horses.”
Making an Impact
When Maeve finished her treatments in August 2020, the equestrian team celebrated along the banks of the river, with Moose in tow, as Maeve sailed past in a boat. Their relationships—and the impact in one another’s lives—have far outlasted the cancer. “It was therapeutic for me as well—I lost my mom to cancer about three years ago, so I could feel some of that terror and struggle that the family had,” Joanna shared. “I also knew that horses have always helped me in difficult times, so for both reasons I was so happy to share a piece of that. To see Maeve make a full recovery was just so joyful.”
“While the mission of the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation is to improve the quality of life of kids battling brain tumors and childhood cancers, I found that the quality of my life has been improved by my relationship with Maeve and her family,” said Lena, whose kind invitation for them to visit her own family farm and ride her horse, Snoopy, remains one of Maeve’s favorite memories. “Knowing that I could help facilitate her passion and share her joy in spending time with horses has been such a fulfilling and inspiring experience. I have looked forward to every opportunity I have had to spend time with her.”
“I think it made everyone step back and have a bit more perspective on their lives and the privileges they enjoy,” Joanna added. “Sometimes as a college student, especially at a rigorous and competitive place like Cornell, it’s easy to get narrow-sighted. I think reaching out to help another and to share some of the great privileges that we enjoy was so good for the team.”
Now, Maeve and her family are the ones reaching out to other families battling pediatric cancer. This year, Maeve was named the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s Girl of the Year and helped fundraising via a Zoom reception, thanking people for donations totaling $225,000. Marisa volunteers for Prep4Gold, which connects families with financial advisors. “There’s really not a lot of support for pediatric cancer families—it’s supposedly so rare, but it’s one in 268 children. It’s really not that rare,” Marisa said. “So we’ve been trying to support local families, which we have to find by word of mouth because of HIPAA medical privacy. We do things like take meals to them, and we got a wheelchair for a boy with brain cancer.”
As a mother, Marisa knows how much support like that can make a difference to the family. She can hardly express the depth of her gratitude for those who supported them, especially the Cornell Equestrian Team—and those who made the match. “I’d love to draw attention to the Friends of Jaclyn Foundation because without their connection, it would have been a completely different path through treatment,” she said. “Maeve would have been a completely different kid.”
When asked if she hopes to do more with horses in the future, Maeve nods with a confident, “Definitely!” Horses are a lifelong love for her now—as is the team that helped foster that love.
“It was so impactful, because it’s a relationship. It’s not just a fun thing to do. It’s not just an experience horseback riding. We could text any of them at any time,” Marisa said. “Coach has been so supportive and so wonderful, letting the girls do any fun things they could think of. They’re just good with her—they’re big sisters. As a mother, I couldn’t ask for anything more. I really couldn’t.”
Photos by Gilbert B. Hammer, www.gilbertbhammer.com