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Strength in the saddle: McKella rides into the National Finals Rodeo

“ Riding is like therapy. Only her horse would understand. ”

- Wish mom, Jessica

  • McKella , 15

    • Burkitt's Lymphoma
    • I wish to go to the National Finals Rodeo in Las Vegas
  • I wish to go

On the surface, wish kid McKella is like any 15-year-old girl. Her best subject is science, she’s obsessed with country singer Luke Bryan, and her favorite color is blue. And, like most teenagers, she has a hobby she just can’t get enough of--horseback riding. But in between going to school, listening to country music, and riding, McKella does something no 15 year old should have to: battle lymphoma.

For McKella, riding horses isn’t just a pastime or a fleeting interest; it’s a source of strength as she fights her illness. It’s no surprise her favorite movie is Flicka, a drama about a girl who finds strength and autonomy as she reigns in a wild mustang and pursues her dream of sustaining her family’s ranch. McKella’s journey is riding her favorite horse (aptly named Flicka) every weekend, savoring each powerful yet gentle step, and drawing emotional strength from their bond to keep fighting. It’s a love that gives her hope that someday she’ll conquer her illness and give back to animals as a veterinarian. It’s a distraction from the realities she copes with every day. Riding Flicka through the lush countryside on the South Side of the Big Island, wind at her back, McKella is unstoppable. As McKella’s mom, Jessica, can attest, “Riding is like therapy­. Only her horse would understand.”

McKella’s deep love and respect for horses and the sport of rodeo made it easy for her to choose her wish. It had always been her dream to go straight to the heart of rodeo and barrel racing and attend the National Finals Rodeo (NFR) in Las Vegas, Nevada. McKella wanted to see her favorite athletes, champion riders like Mary Walker and her horse Latte, in action. At first, McKella’s parents were worried. Did receiving a wish mean they’d have to face the realities and seriousness of McKella’s illness? After meeting with wish granters Annabelle and Melissa, though, they realized Make-A-Wish Hawaii’s vision: grant life-changing wishes that give keiki with critical illnesses the emotional strength and hope to keep fighting.

In December 2017, McKella’s wish came true. She and her family landed in Las Vegas, cowboy hats and boots in tow, ready for the thrill of a lifetime. Before the show, McKella took a behind-the-scenes tour of the Thomas and Mack Center, where she had previously watched the world’s best riders and rodeo stars compete each year on television. McKella was even joined by other wish kids from all over the world, a “cool experience” that tied into the sense of community that has made McKella’s wish experience even more special. And the thrills of her wish didn’t just end at the rodeo; McKella went indoor skydiving, zip lined over downtown Las Vegas, and even served as the Rodeo Princess back home in Hawaii at the Oahu Rope for Wishes rodeo,  where she had the opportunity to proudly wave the Hawaiian flag on horseback during the Hawaiian national anthem.

McKella is back in Ocean View now, back to school, re-watching Flicka, and riding every chance she gets. However, her wish of going to the NFR was more than a fleeting moment; it’s been a transformative, life-changing memory that gives her the hope for the future. True to her own experience, McKella’s advice to future wish kids is simple: “Do something that makes you happy and that is adventurous.”  

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