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Granting wishes the western way

Rex Kent stands with one of his four horses, Socks. Socks is the horse Emma usually rides when she comes over.

Rex Kent of Denmark Township knows what kind of effect horses can have on people, especially children. He had them when he was younger, he watches his daughter work with their four horses, and he also gets to see 7-year-old Emma Phillips of Wyoming, Minn., find in horses the strength to battle cancer.

"There's something so calming and almost magical between children and horses," Kent said.

Horses are often used for therapy, so it's no wonder that one organization, Western Wishes, started using them to better the lives of children with life-altering conditions. The organization was founded 15 years ago to help kids and young adults accomplish their western themed dreams.

Emma's attitude toward her illness and her life inspired Kent to contact Western Wishes, not only to grant Emma her greatest wish, but also to start a chapter in the upper Midwest.

"She just has this courage and strength and faith about her that's very inspiring," he said of Emma.

Emma's wish was to visit renowned horse trainer Chris Cox's ranch, and also see the ocean. So Kent contacted Western Wishes, an organization that helps kids facing adversity enjoy at least a little bit of the Western style of life.

Emma got her wish in March, and with that wish, the Midwest chapter of Western Wishes found its feet.

Kent and his family have been working to bring a Western Wishes chapter to the upper Midwest since December. At first, he and the advisory group that helps direct the program didn't think they would see as much support in this region as in the southern states, since rodeo isn't as prevalent here, but their first fundraiser proved them wrong.

On July 3, 400 horses with their riders showed up to the Washington County Fairgrounds for the first annual "Dash for Dreams" barrel jackpot. Even though the organization paid out about $5,000 in prizes, it raised about $10,000 at the event.

"We were very humbled," Kent said.

It wasn't just riders who came to support the cause.

"We had more volunteers than we knew what to do with," Kent said.

Naturally, many of those volunteers came from Hastings, Cottage Grove and the surrounding area.

Now that they have the funds, the next step is to find kids in Minnesota, Wisconsin and Iowa who have a wish that needs to be fulfilled. They don't need to have any connection to farms, ranches or rodeos other than a personal interest.

"You don't have to live the western way," Kent explained, "you just have to enjoy it."

So far, many of the children Western Wishes has helped are cancer patients. Emma, herself, is a stage IV terminal cancer patient. But the organization doesn't limit their help to cancer. Kent wants to help kids with "any kind of adversity," he said.

Some of the wishes will be simple, such as a kid who just wants to see what it's like on a farm, or go to a local rodeo show.

"Especially with children, everything doesn't have to be Disneyland," he said.

Some wishes will be bigger, such as Emma's. No matter what a child wants to do, "We'll find a way to do it," Kent said.

To Kent, helping the kids find a few moments of joy in their difficult lives is just a way to give something back to them. Through their ordeals, they teach others about strength, faith, courage and hope.

"They do way more for us than we ever do for them," he said.

Kent and his ever-growing advisory board are working on putting a couple clinics together for the coming year, and soon they'll start planning the Fighting Spirit banquet to be held this fall.

One of the dreams Kent has for the Midwest chapter is to have a ranch program where kids can stay for a few days and immerse themselves in the western way of life. But first he has to find someone willing to offer the use of their facilities.

Ultimately, it's all about putting a genuine smile on the face of a child whose life doesn't offer much joy.

"Honestly, I just want to make some kids happy," Kent said.