When a 6-year-old girl got very sick, her 2-year-old sister made a huge sacrifice to save her.
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Vanessa Gissel is an 6-year-old with sickle cell anemia.

The thing about this disease is that when it requires treatment via bone marrow transplant, you need as close to a perfect match as possible or the recipient's body could reject it.

The perfect match for Vanessa? It turned out to be her 2-year-old sister, Sarah.


"That's the beauty of it," said her mom, Dominique. "One is going to complete the other."

Their father, Gregory, has been supportive, too.

Vanessa had always wanted to dye her hair blue, so he took her to the beauty salon so they could do that together. He also recognizes Sarah's huge sacrifice.

Just like the blue hair Gregory donned for his daughter, he also shaved his head so that Vanessa knew her whole family was supporting her.


The transplant wasn't easy.

Sarah being poked with needles.

Sarah cried during the procedure, but her sister faced a more challenging time ahead. After the operation, Vanessa spent 71 grueling days at the Aflac Cancer & Blood Disorders Center of Children's Healthcare of Atlanta, as well as the Atlanta Ronald McDonald House.

The results came back, first three months later then six months later.

Vanessa's tests came back with wonderful results, and she's been in remission ever since.

Children who develop cancer and other blood disorders such as sickle cell anemia can face difficult obstacles on the road to recovery. Even with proper treatment, it's hard for families to plan for the future until the outcome seems certain.

Vanessa's mother summed up how the future of her daughter and family has changed:

“She'll be able to get married, have kids, pick a profession. I feel like we can do anything now." — Dominique Gissel


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When Molly Reeser was a student at Michigan State University, she took a job mucking horse stalls to help pay for classes. While she was there, she met a 10-year-old girl named Casey, who was being treated for cancer, and — because both were animal lovers — they became fast friends.

Two years later, Casey died of cancer.

"Everyone at the barn wanted to do something to honor her memory," Molly remembers. A lot of suggestions were thrown out, but Molly knew that there was a bigger, more enduring way to do it.

"I saw firsthand how horses helped Casey and her family escape from the difficult and terrifying times they were enduring. I knew that there must be other families who could benefit from horses in the way she and her family had."

Molly approached the barn owners and asked if they would be open to letting her hold a one-day event. She wanted to bring pediatric cancer patients to the farm, where they could enjoy the horses and peaceful setting. They agreed, and with the help of her closest friends and the "emergency" credit card her parents had given her, Molly created her first Camp Casey. She worked with the local hospital where Casey had been a patient and invited 20 patients, their siblings and their parents.

The event was a huge success — and it was originally meant to be just that: a one-day thing. But, Molly says, "I believe Casey had other plans."

One week after the event, Molly received a letter from a five-year-old boy who had brain cancer. He had been at Camp Casey and said it was "the best day of his life."

"[After that], I knew that we had to pull it off again," Molly says. And they did. Every month for the next few years, they threw a Camp Casey. And when Molly graduated, she did the most terrifying thing she had ever done and told her parents that she would be waitressing for a year to see if it might be possible to turn Camp Casey into an actual nonprofit organization. That year of waitressing turned into six, but in the end she was able to pull it off: by 2010, Camp Casey became a non-profit with a paid staff.

"I am grateful for all the ways I've experienced good luck in my life and, therefore, I believe I have a responsibility to give back. It brings me tremendous joy to see people, animals, or things coming together to create goodness in a world that can often be filled with hardships."

Camp Casey serves 1500 children under the age of 18 each year in Michigan. "The organization looks different than when it started," Molly says. "We now operate four cost-free programs that bring accessible horseback riding and recreational services to children with cancer, sickle cell disease, and other life-threatening illnesses."

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