For an hour on Wednesday, 3-year-old Ivy Fondots was just like any other little girl who loves horses.
Dressed in pink cowboy boots and short overalls, the Oceanside toddler squealed with delight when the trail horse “Doc” took a carrot from her hand. Then she shouted “Giddyap!” as they ambled off on a trail ride with ranch owner Lou Roper.
It was a heartwarming moment for Ivy, who has spent two-thirds of her life battling acute lymphoblastic leukemia (ALL). Ivy’s mother, Kelly, said her daughter has had a challenging life but the opportunity to meet a horse had lifted her spirits tremendously that day.
Ivy and Doc’s meetup was organized by Warrior Horses for Warrior Kids, a foundation launched in May by Ryan Melendez, 19, who — like Ivy — has also spent the past two years battling ALL.
The Valley Center teen created the Warrior program this summer to raise money for the Leukemia & Lymphoma Society’s annual Man & Woman of the Year contest.
With the support of Arabian horse owners around the world, Melendez raised more than $310,000 in just five weeks, winning him the title of 2017 Man of the Year for the society’s San Diego chapter.
Melendez is not only the youngest Man of the Year winner in the chapter’s 15-year history, he also ranked as this year’s No. 4 fundraiser in the United States (among more than 900 nominees nationwide).
Although Warrior Horses for Warrior Kids was created as a short-term fundraiser, it has captured the imagination of horse owners worldwide and Melendez is now talking about long-term expansion plans for the organization, which pairs horses with children fighting cancer for free therapeutic interactions.
Although cancer has derailed Melendez’s life, college and career dreams, he now calls his diagnosis a “blessing” because it forced him to refocus his energy on others and led to a meaningful new mission.
“I know it seems kinda crazy but I think getting cancer has only had positive impact on my life as a whole,” he said. “I’ve learned how valuable life is and it has changed who I am into a much more caring person who helps others. It feels extremely awesome to connect these kids fighting cancer with horses and take their mind off their own struggles for a little while.”
Melendez’s mother, Kristal Raiger, said she’s been amazed at her son’s indomitable spirit and how he’s turned his bad fortune into something good. If all had gone according to plan, Melendez would now be entering his sophomore year of college, perhaps at Stanford University, on a golf scholarship.
That all changed two summers ago when Melendez said he felt like he’d “hit a brick wall” while competing in a golf tournament in Santa Cruz. Over the next few weeks, he struggled with chest and lower back pain, weakness and nausea.
Doctors at first thought it was a virus, but when he could no longer walk and he began vomiting so violently it burst the blood vessels in his eyes, he was finally hospitalized and diagnosed with a high-risk case of ALL.
After a month in the hospital, where he lost 40 pounds, he started an aggressive three-year chemotherapy regimen that will continue until December 2018. He missed most of his senior year at Valley Center High, his grades plummeted and he was too ill to take his advanced placement exams. His dream of attending Stanford evaporated and he was forced to give up competitive golfing, a sport that he’d practiced daily since his freshman year.
But there were bright spots. During his hospital stay, he got a call from his golfing idol Rickie Fowler as well as Stanford golf coach Conrad Ray. He also had a bedside visit from basketball legend Bill Walton.
He found a way to continue competing athletically by returning to his first love of horseback riding. Since he was a little boy, Melendez has ridden and shown horses. His father, Bill, is a nationally known Arabian horse trainer and show judge, and Melendez said riding horses is as natural to him as walking and breathing.
Over the past few years he has won three national championships and four national reserve championships at Arabian Horse Association shows.
Not only did riding fulfill his competitive desires, it brought him closer to the small but generous Arabian horse community. In 2015, these horse owners donated more than $40,000 toward his cancer treatment through a Gofundme campaign.
“I thought he had all the qualities of a great Man of the Year candidate,” she said. “He had an incredible story, he was very charismatic, engaging and such a great leader. And I knew he had a competitive side to him.”
That final characteristic is important, since the contest involves competing against one another to raise as much money as possible in just 10 weeks. Melendez, who was spending the summer taking general education courses online at MiraCosta College, was going to face off against bankers and CEOs.
His initial idea was to tap his network of friends for $100 donations, and then ask each of them to make the same request of all their friends. But five weeks into the contest, he’d raised just $3,000.
Then he hit on the idea of reaching out once more to the Arabian horse community by creating the Warrior Horses for Warrior Kids program. In exchange for a $1,000 donation to the society, owners could register their Arabians as Warrior Horses. The horses would be recognized at national competitions and would be paired for one-on-one interactions with children fighting cancer.
In just five weeks, donations skyrocketed and 233 horses in the U.S., Canada and United Kingdom joined the Warrior program.
Melendez said Arabian horse owners are generous by nature, they support each other and they like being involved in programs that promote the Arabian breed. Matching these horses with fragile young children is also an excellent way to disprove the stereotype that Arabian horses are temperamental.
“Arabians get the same rap as pit bulls. There’s a perception that they’re wild, but it depends on how they’re brought up,” he said. “My experience is they’re the most caring and loving of all horse breeds. Around young children, they watch their step a little closer. They’re very intuitive.”
Megan Callan — whose family’s horse “Doc” took Ivy for a ride on Wednesday at Roper Ranch in San Marcos — said she was eager to sign up for the Warrior program this summer. A longtime friend of the Melendez family, Callan said she loves bringing together her gentle horse, a four-time national champion, with first-time riders like Ivy.
Assuming Melendez doesn’t suffer a recurrence of his cancer, which is common in older ALL patients, he is now starting the application process again for Stanford, UCLA and a few other universities, with the goal of attending in fall 2018.
In the meantime, he’ll continue taking undergraduate classes, rebuilding his golf game and playing guitar. He’s also now working on arranging horse encounters for warrior kids (they’ve organized about 50 interactions so far). And he plans to expand the Warrior program to horses of all breeds.
“We’ve barely scratched the surface of the horse world,” he said. “Watching these interactions is so special. With kids who are sick, it’s almost like these horses know they’re going through a hard time. It’s an unexplainable connection that happens between these horses and the warrior kids.”