Szymanski: Just being a good neighbor, teen takes care of animals while owner battles cancer

Claire Newman is shown with Cash, the horse she has been taking care of as her neighbor battles cancer.
Claire Newman is shown with Cash, the horse she has been taking care of as her neighbor battles cancer. (Courtesy photo)

When I was young, my mom encouraged me to pitch in to help others whenever possible. She said, “It’s the neighborly thing to do.” Over time, I realized the importance of being a good neighbor. I saw how even the smallest thing you do for another person can make a big difference. I was reminded of this recently, when I heard about the amazing generosity of a 14-year-old Silver Run resident named Claire Newman. But I should start from the beginning.

A few years ago, I met a local lady named Jessica Dustin. We are both members of the Chincoteague Pony community online, but we didn’t meet in person until she messaged me to say she wanted to donate an item to our charity auction at Pony Penning. I was touched by this outreach from a stranger and we have kept in touch ever since. Last week, she wrote to tell me about Claire. After the story unfolded, I knew I wanted to share it.


Jessica told me about her sister, Nikki Gonder, and the neighbor girl who has been her angel in disguise. I knew I needed to to learn more. I started with Colleen Newman. She told me how her family moved to Silver Run a year ago, on March 15. Her children are all involved in 4-H and they were saving to buy a pair of baby goats.

“My youngest daughter, Mollie (10 years old) created a flyer she called Paws in Action,” Colleen said. “She wanted to have a dog-walking business, so she printed the flyers and handed them out to the neighbors. Nikki was one of them. Nikki said she had just thinking about her [beagle] Jolene and how she was in the crate all day while she was at work, so Mollie started to run up there after school to let her out and give her some playtime.”


Nikki said she laughed when she saw the flyer, because the prices were so low.

“She asked for $1 to come play with the dog,” Nikki said. “My dog has an exercise tracker, like a FitBit, so I can see that she really does get exercise when Mollie comes. That first time, she asked if her sister, Claire could come along.”

It has been a hard year for Nikki, who has had horses her whole life. The pony she’s had since she was a little girl died this year, and 15-year-old Cash, who had an injury and is not rideable, was left alone.

“Then, on Dec 21, I was diagnosed with cancer,” Nikki said. “I’ve had a lot of nausea, and because my blood counts frequently drop, they didn’t want me out in the dirt. Claire’s mom asked if there was anything they could do to help with Cash, and that Claire would love to take care of him for me.”

It was something Claire wanted to do. She loves horses, but it is more than that.

“It is important to let people know you are there for them,” Claire said. “Just because Ms. Nikki never asked for any help doesn’t mean she doesn’t need it. She is strong, but she needs people and she shouldn’t be alone.”

Nikki’s breast cancer is also in her lymph nodes, so she had to have chemo every other week for 8 weeks and is now doing 12 weeks of weekly chemo. Then, she’ll have a double mastectomy followed by radiation.

I quickly realized what a cohesive team we had, all from different backgrounds, but all loving the same thing. A little research showed me that there are eight elements necessary for a team collaboration to be successful.

“My sister, Jessica lives about 10 minutes away. She used to help take care of the horse, but now she goes to all my chemo and appointments with me. So I have Claire. She knocks every day to tells me she’s here so I can let the dog out with her for a bit. If I am not home, she will text me and say, ‘I let Jolene out for a while and fed Cash.’ This girl touches my heart,” Nikki said. “She has been a blessing to my life and to our community for just helping others without expecting a thing in return. I wish there were more people like that.”

Nikki said Claire is there every single weekday, and on the weekends that her husband is not home. She never asks for a dime in payment and refuses money when it’s offered. She’s cleaned stalls, picked up the fields, and she waters and feeds Cash.

Claire says that is the way it should be.

“I do it because I love it. I adore this horse, but also — anything I can do to make it easier for her, I will do. She is going through a rough patch in her life. She might not say it, but she needs any help she can get. She has been very strong.”

Claire says she is rewarded, too, because she loves horses. Especially Cash.


“I am probably obsessed with this horse,” she said with love and excitement spilling over as she spoke. “We take pictures. We dance together — well, really, I dance! He is so gentle, and when he knows I am coming to feed him he will stick his head out the door or come running. I just love this horse!”

As a writer, I’ve heard many stories about authors who write a book and then his or her work of fiction comes true. In late November, it happened again. When my friend and author, Bobbie Pyron lost her dog, we prayed there would be a happy ending, just like in her book, “A Dog’s Way Home.” 

Colleen said Claire is a 4-H Ambassador and she hopes to volunteer with the 4-H therapeutic riding club next year, after her ambassador duties are over. The family has a heart for giving. Nikki said she is grateful for that.

“Back in the day, that’s how neighbors were, but not so much anymore,” Nikki said. “We tried to have her recognized for community service hours through the school, but it’s not allowed. I want her to be recognized because she is doing more than some do when they volunteer for nonprofits. It’s hard work. She carries bales of hay to the barn and she picks up manure. She’s picked up broken fencing and cleaned stalls. Her sister, Mollie, helps with that, too. That’s hard work.”

For Claire, it is a labor of love. She only has one worry.

“I don’t want to steal Ms. Nikki’s time with her horse because I know how much she she loves him. But,” she adds, “I would take care of him forever if needed.”

Hearing about Nikki and Claire and Mollie made my day. We need more stories like this in this world. Claire summed it up perfectly.

“You’ve got to be there for others,” she said. “Everyone will have a point in their life when they will need someone, when they can’t help their selves, and we should be there. There should always be someone out there.”

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