Nikki McCarthy

Mother honors daughter’s memory through music, art programs

Watching kids splattering each other with paint and running around beneath the early afternoon sun, Nikki McCarthy holds back tears. It’s hard for her to visit Flying Horse Farms. But she finds joy in it, too. Here, she sees firsthand how Sam’s Fans, an organization she started in her daughter’s name, helps children.

“It makes her really excited that she’s out there doing something good from something horrible that happened,” said Patti Snyder, McCarthy’s mom.

The money Sam’s Fans raises goes toward funding music and art therapy programs for children. McCarthy, 45, isn’t hands-on with the therapy, but she makes it possible.

“The art and music therapy part is really personal and really intimate to each patient and family,” said McCarthy’s best friend, Mandi McGlone.

Sam’s Fans, which started in 2015, has funded a specialist for the last two years at Flying Horse Farms, a summer camp that provides experiences for children with serious illnesses at no cost. McCarthy said it was important for her to donate to a summer camp because Sam didn’t get to go.

“I don’t know who comes or what it looks like, but everyone’s happy,” she said. “As long as everyone’s happy, it works for me.”

The specialist implements camp-wide programming for music, dance, drama, theater and other activities for campers. Sam’s Fans raises money through events like 5Ks and an annual live music and fashion show called Thread of Hope.

McCarthy grew up in Minerva Park, near Westerville. She lives in Upper Arlington and was a full-time mom before starting Sam’s Fans. Of her four children, only Sam had Fanconi anemia. The disease, according to the Fanconi Anemia Research Fund, is a DNA-repair disease that can lead to bone marrow failure, leukemia and solid tumors. Sometimes, infants have symptoms from birth. Sam didn’t. Instead, Sam got a cold she couldn’t shake. After a slew of doctor’s appointments, she was diagnosed when she was in first grade. She died when she was 11, on October 15, 2009.

“The day that Sam died, I remember walking into the hospital room, and Nikki said, ‘What am I going to do?’” McGlone said. “And I said ‘I don’t know, but I’ll be right by your side and we’ll do it together.’ I didn’t know at the time what that meant, but I know now.”

McCarthy started Sam’s Fans, with McGlone’s help, as a nonprofit in 2015. McCarthy is the executive director and McGlone is the associate director.

Most donations to Sam’s Fans these days go toward funding music and art therapy programs. Funding recipients across the state include Cincinnati Children’s Hospital Medical Center, Dayton Children’s Hospital, and Nationwide Children’s Hospital here in Columbus, McGlone said.

Sam’s Fans also donated ukuleles to Flying Horse Farms. Kids can learn to play the instrument and use them in performances.

Rob Lyberg is a summer camp counselor at Flying Horse Farms. “It gave them some sort of solace,” he said about the music programming. “Sometimes, the world can be crazy between hospital visits.”

McCarthy’s son Finn said he sees that Sam’s Fans has done more than help children.

“They all mean something,” Finn said about other charities. “But I think, to my mom, it’s different, because it’s just something that really helped her.”

McGlone sees McCarthy as a “fierce advocate” for her children, and someone who is always there when needed.

“She is one of the strongest people that I’ve ever met,” McGlone said. “She has been so inspiring to watch—just the way that she has turned her grief into this beautiful, beautiful thing that really honors Sam and what Sam loved.”