By Ross Markman
Ryder Allen Howie was like most 5-year-olds, living each day for the now and every minute as a kid.
He was just 15 months old when doctors discovered a malignant tumor in his brain. It was cancer and it couldn't be stopped.
At 2 and a half, Ryder lost his sight. Soon after, he was fitted with child-size, blue-colored hearing aids. The kid with the undaunting smile and unbreakable spirit lost his battle with cancer in February of last year.
"Ryder never missed nothing. Even though he couldn't see, he was the most talkative little blabby," Ryder's grandmother, Maureen Weatherly, said. "He was giving people a knuckle sandwich all the time."
His parents, Kevin and Rochelle, both natives of Havre, moved the family to Birmingham, Ala., following a surgery there to remove the tumor. The procedure was unsuccessful.
After two years in Alabama, the Howies moved to Billings for further treatment and to be closer to family.
In the last years of his life, Ryder found an escape from the chemotherapy, the vomiting, and most significantly, the cancer. It was in Billings that the Howie family, which included Ryder's twin brother Austin, first met Tim Crowley.
Crowley, a U.S. Postal Service special delivery messenger, ran an organization called Kids 'N' Cowboys, where children like Ryder could forget about their illness. The group solicits businesses in Billings for donations to pay for kids afflicted with cancer, or in remission or cured to attend the city's annual rodeo. The kids and their families are also treated to a buffet dinner at the fairgrounds.
"The kids just have fun period. We don't say anything about cancer the whole day," said Crowley, 51. "For the kids that have cancer now, it gives them some hope to see the ones that have recovered."
Ryder attended Kids 'N' Cowboys. Even though he couldn't see the action, Weatherly said, he could feel the excitement.
"He loved going," she said.
That's why Weatherly is working to establish Ryder's & Heroes, a Kids 'N' Cowboys-type organization in Havre.
"This is a memorial of Ryder. I think this is the way. He'd be happy," she said. "We know what we'd like to do. The problem is, now we've got to find the kids."
Weatherly and four other Havre women have been meeting in Weatherly's Fourth Avenue home since September. Crowley visited with the committee several months ago to educate them about Kids 'N' Cowboys.
"We're going to go to clubs and businesses asking people to donate rodeo tickets and prizes," Weatherly said.
Donna Antley, a member of the Ryder's & Heroes committee, said area service clubs have been receptive and would be willing to help if it's proven there's a need for such an organization in Havre.
"We know there are other children out there. I think they'll be ready for help. This is just one day they don't have to worry about appointments and doctors. It's just for fun," Antley said.
"If we have the kids, we can do it," she added. "There may or may not be a need for this in Havre. We don't know."
Regardless, Crowley said, Weatherly and Antley can expect nothing but support.
"You start to look for it and it's there," he said.
Crowley established Kids 'N' Cowboys along with his wife, Rose, in 1994. The couple's 24-year-old daughter, Kimmye, survived a bout with ovarian cancer as a teenager. They started the organization with 14 families in Billings.
"When we did it the second year, we decided to do out-of-town families and kids of all ages," said Crowley, who each year takes a week off to raise funds. "We basically doubled in a year."
Now, the organization averages between 90 and 100 kids a year, he said.
"All the kids do is come down and run around, and act like kids. They don't have a care in the world," Crowley said.
From December 2000 to January 2002, Kids 'N' Cowboys lost six children to cancer. But most of those families, Crowley said, still attended last year's rodeo.
Crowley said he recently received a letter from a 16-year-old girl who had attended the rodeo with Kids 'N' Cowboys. The girl had lost her hair due to chemotherapy.
"She wrote that she felt so comfortable at the dinner that she took her bandana off," Crowley said.
"It's a support group-type thing," he added. "It puts the kids and parents amongst their own."
That's why Weatherly is pushing for Ryder's & Heroes in Havre to get kids stricken with cancer away from the needles and nurses and hospitals.
"We want to get families and kids together for a fun time," she said. "There are so many kids that get cancer that this would be good for."
And like Kimmye, who Crowley said is no longer directly involved in the Kids 'N' Cowboys program.
"But she's the inspiration behind it," he said. "She did her job by surviving."
For more information on Ryder's & Heroes, contact Maureen Weatherly at 265-2637, Donna Antley at 265-1730, or Peggy and Alexis Verploegen at 265-8594.