Chalee Gilliland may have been born with cystic fibrosis, but that didn’t stop her from finding her way to the barrel pen as fast as she could. The tough young cowgirl from Bloomington, Indiana, endured multiple surgeries that ultimately resected two-thirds of her bowel—four of them occurring in the first three months of her life—leaving her with only a small section of remaining bowel by the time she was in grade school. But Chalee didn’t measure her life by its limitations. She measured it, instead, by all the things she dreamed of doing—running track, working as a jockey, becoming the first female president and being a barrel racer.

Chalee’s mom, Susan Gilliland, says her daughter was an adventurous child who loved going fast on the back of a horse. Naturally, barrel racing quickly became young Chalee’s favorite way to spend her time. 

“The day Chalee died, we were supposed to be at a barrel race,” Susan said. “We barrel raced every single moment of every single weekend that we could.”

When Chalee passed away from cystic fibrosis complications at the tender age of 11 years old, the Gilliland family found a way to reinvest their grief through the industry that brought so much joy to Chalee—they started an annual barrel race that doubles as a fundraiser for cystic fibrosis patients and their families. The family also started the Chalee Gilliland Foundation, which awards scholarships each year to eligible youth who are attending the National Barrel Horse Association World Championships in Perry, Georgia.

“We tell recipients to go have fun [with the money],” Susan said. “The most important thing is that they have fun and make memories with their families. People take that for granted, but life’s too short.”

Susan says one of her favorite things about producing the event is keeping Chalee’s memory alive through the benefit barrel race.

“People say you die twice—once when you pass away and once when people stop saying your name—and it’s true,” Susan said. “For me, keeping her alive through the show is very cathartic.”

The Chalee Gilliland Memorial Barrels and Bling Barrel Race kicks off its 10th annual running from July 1–3 at C Bar C Expo Center in Cloverdale, Indiana. It has become a staple show for many in the region who come to enjoy the giant water slide, take a run at the added money and honor the young cowgirl who gained her angel wings too soon. 

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