Caesar the Llama promoting blood drives in memory of teenage friend who died of cancer

AvaLynn Hosmer, left, and Caesar, meet at an October 2019 event for Hosmer’s homecoming. (Courtesy/Kimberly Hosmer)

Salem’s celebrity llama wants your blood.

Caesar, the four-year-old therapy llama who regularly makes public appearances at events around western Oregon, is expanding his community service efforts into local blood drives in honor of a two-legged friend who recently died from cancer.

Owner Larry McCool, a longtime blood donor, and Ariel Knox, who helps plan events for Caesar, have put together an inaugural blood drive Tuesday Dec. 10 through American Red Cross that’s already set to break local records, with about 120 donors signed up.

It’s a time of year when blood supplies are short as people travel for the holidays, which can mean needed surgeries don’t happen if local hospitals run low.

“We don’t have drives this huge. It’s a very big deal for us,” said Mack Fitz-Gerald, program manager for the Red Cross in the Salem area.

The drive is to honor AvaLynn Hosmer, a 14-year-old Salem animal lover and Sprague High School student who died this week from a rare type of bone cancer after receiving a terminal diagnosis earlier this year. Her mother, Kimberly, chronicled her daughter’s life and final months on a Facebook page with more than 2,000 people following.

“She has chosen to live her last months to the fullest. She was the one to share with her friends, she’s open to conversation, she’s making her bucket list and we will help make her limited time here the best it ever can be,” Kimberly Hosmer wrote in a September post after the terminal diagnosis.

AvaLynn’s Facebook page has dozens of pictures of her posing with birds or a crab she met while traveling, or chickens at home. Her mother reached out to Caesar’s Facebook page and asked if the two could meet.

In October, AvaLynn’s family held a small event at their home before their daughter’s homecoming dance. Caesar attended, and AvaLynn got dressed up, wearing a flower crown.

Photos show the two of them staring into each other’s eyes, looking calm and happy.

“That actually was just an amazing moment and it wasn’t staged,” McCool said. “He just came up to her and she looked at him and they just locked eyes.”

Caesar made another appearance at a celebration the Hosmers organized for AvaLynn in November.

“When it became clear that Ava didn’t have very much longer they did a big send-off,” Knox said.

Caesar nuzzles owner Larry McCool at a July 2019 event. (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

A Deadpool cosplayer visited, and the family got Ryan Reynolds, the actor who plays Deadpool, to do a voice-over for a video of the event.

“I just wanted to let you know that today was completely and totally perfect. I loved your llama friend, by the way. Great beard, beautiful kisser, unexpectedly long tongue” Reynolds said. “But that’s not why I’m calling … You put a crap ton of love into this world and at the end of the day I think that’s all we’re here for.”

McCool recalled AvaLynn maintained a sense of humor, even as she grew weaker. When fireworks at the event caused some concern the fire department might show up, she said she’d take the fall.

“Just tell them I’m the one that did it – I’m not going to be around in two weeks anyway,” McCool remembered her saying.

“She knew her fate. She understood where she was at in life,” he said.

At the celebration, McCool talked with the family about AvaLynn’s legacy. She’d relied on blood transfusions and platelet donations while in treatment.

“She really liked the idea of a legacy going forward that would help other kids who went through what she went through,” Knox said.

Caesar’s team decided to begin hosting quarterly blood drives, calling them “Caesar’s Heroes.” They’re raising money to give donors free shirts.

Tuesday’s drive initially had about 30 spots, Fitz-Gerald said. Those filled in 72 hours, so they increased it to 60 spots. Once those filled up, he got in touch with higher-ups about bringing staff down from Portland to help.

“Larry was not gonna take no for an answer,” Fitz-Gerald said.

Caesar and his team have already signed up to host another drive in February.

“It’s showing the community that this little girl brings so much kindness and love and support into this world, we have to show it back,” Fitz-Gerald said.

The drive is Dec. 10 at the Salem Elks Lodge, 2336 Turner Rd S.E., from 12:30 to 6:30 p.m. Those wishing to donate can sign up in advance here.

Reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

Rachel Alexander is Salem Reporter’s managing editor. She joined Salem Reporter when it was founded in 2018 and covers city news, education, nonprofits and a little bit of everything else. She’s been a journalist in Oregon and Washington for a decade. Outside of work, she’s a skater and board member with Salem’s Cherry City Roller Derby and can often be found with her nose buried in a book.