Giving Back Awards: EQUI-KIDS
AUTHOR: Ryan Miller
NEWS SOURCE: coastalvirginiamag.com
LOCATION: Virginia Beach, VA
EQUI-KIDS Empowers and Inspires Individuals with Disabilities Through Equine-Assisted Programs
At EQUI-KIDS, making a difference for the life of another gives them their greatest sense of purpose. “For some people, it’s a smile or a word from some of the families, it’s tears and hugs or the look on a proud parent’s face when they see a child accomplish something they were told they’d never be able to accomplish,” Executive Director Stacy Rogers explains as the instance when they know they’ve made an impact. “Oftentimes it’s not words, it’s what we get to see and feel as far as emotionally how we’re bringing success to the people that we work with,” Rogers adds, “that is the most rewarding.”
The nonprofit in Virginia Beach provides equine-assisted activities for those with mental, physical, emotional, social or learning disabling conditions living in our region. Their programs are wide in scope and support children and adults with Down syndrome, autism, multiple sclerosis, traumatic brain injury, cerebral palsy, amputation, attention deficit disorder and other mental and physical disabilities. Often these individuals face stigmas and invisibility in broader society, making it more challenging for them to succeed in school or even find employment. “It speaks volumes when the parent of a child with a disability tells us how their child’s life has improved because of EQUI-KIDS,” remarks Victoria Arboneaux, development director. “As a result, their entire family derives strength and inspiration.”
With their EQUI-VETS program, wounded, ill and injured active duty and retired veterans that have been affected in the line of duty are provided therapeutic horseback riding, horse care activities and outdoor experiences at no out-of-pocket expense. These are service men and women with PTSD, traumatic brain injury, depression, anxiety and chronic mental illness. EQUI-VETS works to assist them in physical and mental healing to reconnect with their families and in their lives while participants interact with horses to strengthen emotional bonds and build trust and confidence.
EQUI-KIDS focuses on six programs in particular: therapeutic riding with adapted riding services; a school partnership program that serves local special needs students through partnerships with public schools; hippotherapy, which provides advanced physical and occupational therapies with a horse; equine-assisted psychotherapy, which provides mental health-focused work through building trust relationships with a horse; EQUI-VETS, working specifically with service men and women suffering internal and external injuries from their service; and their work experience program that partners with special needs teenagers and young adults to provide onsite job training. Last year they provided 3,500 hours of lessons during 33 weeks of sessions, serving on average 110 individuals a week.
EQUI-KIDS was established in 1989 by Barbara Ford, who had an extensive background with caring for horses and equine therapy as it became a more established discipline. Recognizing both the need and benefits of equine therapy, EQUI-KIDS has since expanded as one of the largest accredited equine riding programs in the country serving the special needs community.
In 2007, Home Associates of Virginia, a local developer working on the Heritage Park housing development in Virginia Beach, gifted 92 acres of undeveloped land on Sandbridge Road to EQUI-KIDS. Subsequently a capital campaign raised $5.5 million to build out a new facility with indoor and outdoor riding arenas; an administrative building; a spacious barn with stalls adapted for those with disabilities; bucolic green pastures; working farm space; a large storage shed; and a wooded trail system for riders with sensory stations to help engage them and use some of their fine motor skills.
For Rogers, becoming executive director of EQUI-KIDS held its own personal ties to her upbringing and family. She grew up on a horse farm in upstate New York before relocating to Virginia Beach with her husband, who is serving as an active duty member of the military. Her father is a disabled Vietnam War veteran and she has four nephews with special needs. EQUI-KIDS’ mission is near and dear to her heart, and she considers her role as her vocation.
“Every member of this team is critical,” asserts Rogers, as the nonprofit is led by a staff of 10 full-time employees that oversee the organization’s programs, special events and care of 18 horses. Another 600 active volunteers participate in fundraising efforts, help with the facilities and assist with therapy lessons after receiving training. EQUI-KIDS has also found that community partnerships are essential to success, as they’ve worked with local public school systems and higher education institutions to serve special needs and disabled populations as well as local military programs for EQUI-VETS.
Equine therapy has shown that these gallant galloping horses offer a bevy of benefits. Riders strengthen their muscles during exercises and their programs help develop fine motor skills. Horses are emotionally driven, so it’s important to EQUI-KIDS that each rider bonds with the horse they’re working with. The horse will reflect the rider’s emotions and any dilemma they may be facing, and as the rider becomes more comfortable the horse will reciprocate. For those with disabilities, humans often give different feedback as opposed to a horse, which isn’t judging them on preconceived notions. Each horse goes through a rigorous evaluation and training process to ensure they are a fit for their programs.
“We are permanently here and are proffered to be able to do what we do on this property in perpetuity, so it allows us to be physically accessible to a variety of folks throughout the region,” assures Rogers. There is an enormous need here for individuals that are struggling with mental, social, psychological and physical disabilities in addition to a growing population of veterans and active duty individuals that could use their services. Their goal is to grow their program, which has changed so many lives already.
“We get to see children experience and overcome obstacles that they thought that they wouldn’t be able to overcome. We get to see veterans and their healing process. We get to see the volunteers and the joy that they get out of working with the people that they work with,” Rogers reflects. “It’s extremely powerful.”
EQUI-KIDS Stall Ball
Nov. 23, EQUI-KIDS, Virginia Beach
Put on your boots and enjoy the annual Stall Ball with live music, gourmet tasting stations, an open bar with libations and live and silent auctions all in support of EQUI-KIDS.