MAUI, Hawaii — Sometimes in the middle of the Saddle Up for St. Jude trail ride on the Thompson Ranch in Maui, Theresa Thompson, the youngest of the 11 Thompson children born in nearby Kula Hospital and raised on Mt. Haleakala, will glance behind her for a moment and see the horses thread out across the mountain for more than a mile, and she fills with a kind of lightness, a kind of happiness that’s almost spiritual, “like church.”
Growing up here on this verdant peak in Maui was as beautiful a childhood as you could imagine, “The whole mountain was our backyard. It was just wonderful,” said Theresa, despite the loss of her parents when she was young. Her dad died when she was 7. Her mom died from cancer when Theresa was 19. “It was really devastating when she passed,” said Theresa, because her mom had been the matriarch of the family. Its beating heart.
So Theresa grew up quickly, because the horses, cows and goats needed tending. The siblings had trail rides to do every day as part of the ranch income. Hard work, but it healed her.
Today, Theresa is 59, a mom and a fourth grade schoolteacher, and she and her brother Jerry Thompson, who owns the ranch, put on this Saddle Up for St. Jude Maui event to benefit St. Jude Children’s Research Hospital. The annual trail ride event began in 1992 and attracts anywhere from 50 to 100 riders. Their extended family pitches in to help.
“Cancer is near and dear to our hearts,” said Theresa. Not only because of their mom but because several years ago when a little girl they knew, Lokana Rodrigues, was diagnosed with leukemia, she was treated in a hospital in Oahu on a plan pioneered by St. Jude.
“Thanks to St. Jude, she’s a healthy mom with two beautiful children and a family in Colorado,” said Theresa.
She pauses for a long time when she talks about Lokana. “It’s an emotional thing.”
And it’s why this ranch family in Maui supports a pediatric cancer hospital more than 4,000 miles away.
Cowboy stew, and a lot of love
The six-hour event takes riders through gulches and over prairies as they make their way up the mountain.
At Fleming Arboretum in Ulupalakua six miles out, the riders stop for lunch. They feast on a cowboy stew of “ranch beef, and just, you know, potatoes, carrots, string beans. Sometimes people put sausage in. No big secret. And a lot of love.”
Theresa estimates she wears a St. Jude shirt five out of the seven days every week.
“We brag to everybody that St. Jude shares breakthroughs with everybody in the world. We’re just so proud of that. It’s not just the children (in Memphis) they’re helping. They’re helping everybody.”
A few of the younger riders have online fundraising pages, but most collect donations the old fashioned way by knocking on doors and collecting checks. To date, the event has raised more than $430,000 for St. Jude.
Jerry and Theresa give a belt buckle to the person who raises the most money, and there are other prizes, too, such as bridles and native Hawaiian potted plants — all gifted by people on the island to help the cause.
Theresa has a friend who makes ceramics and decorates them with horse hair from the Thompson Ranch.
“We go up to the ranch and we bring home all the tail hair (we can find), and when it comes out of the kiln, she burns it onto the pot. It’s just amazing. It’s so cool. Just different things that people give, just with love.”
All the aloha in the world
Theresa’s brother Jerry lives by the Hawaiian proverb: He aliʻi ka ʻāina. He kauwā ke kanaka.
The land is chief. We are the stewards.
He loves to share the mountain with everyone.
Theresa has always been the adoring “younger sister from hell,” as she puts it, chasing after him, always underfoot and with a million questions. They do the Saddle Up for St. Jude Maui event together, a cherished time for both of them. Her favorite time of the year, when they get to spend all day riding together on the ranch, just like they did when they were kids.
In a few instances on the way home from the ride, there’s been a cloudburst of warm rain. “It’s God giving us thanks,” said Theresa.
She considers it part of the experience of the event — and of living, really.
“Everyone gets soaked, and we all look like drowned rats, and we’re just smiling leaving, all soaked and muddy, still smiling as we drive out with the horses. Just wonderful.”
People come to the Saddle Up for St. Jude Maui event to be part of this magic, and some come every year: Like the Maui doctor who borrows a horse from a cowboy so she can ride. “She’s a cowgirl at heart,” said Theresa. And the government officials who trade their workaday clothes for boots and jeans to look the part of ranch hands, just for the day. And the teenagers from the local high school rodeo, who grew up on horses. They look out on the Thompson Ranch and yearn for something like this for themselves one day: a patch of land, a bit of sky, a herd of cattle and some horses, here in God’s country.
Some of the older cowboys don’t have horses anymore, and they’ll bring their four wheelers, “and we have this whole parade of quads, 10 or 15 quads following the trail ride, not bothering the ride.” But they’re happy to tag along, see the view, and have some lunch.
Even the horses seem to enjoy the sightseeing.
“It’s so relaxing, and it’s so good for the horses’ minds, too. They just get out and walk and look around. They stop and look at the view. It’s just amazing.”
And who can blame the horses? Because if this isn’t the most stunning view on earth, then it must be a contender.
“It’s rolling grass hills that are just beautiful, and you look down to the shoreline, and you’re looking at the ocean, and you can see tourists' boats out there and people going out to go snorkeling. You look up the mountains, and there’s little clouds circling the mountains, like a lei. You just know there’s a God.”
Gerald and Collette Rodrigues come, too. Every year. They wouldn’t miss it. They’ll support St. Jude forever, said Gerald, because their daughter Lokana, whose name is now Lokana Reed, survived leukemia.
Gerald can relate to St. Jude families, and he guesses he’ll always feel like one of them. Because once you’ve had a child with cancer, you know exactly what that’s like.
“It gets to my heart every single time I see one of those (St. Jude) commercials, and I feel so hurt for them, what they’ve got to go through,” said Gerald. “And you know, I wish them the best, all the aloha in the world.
“I ask the Lord to bless those kids and shine his light on them, every single one.”