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Nonprofits saddle efforts

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  • | 5:00 a.m. March 5, 2014
  • East County
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EAST COUNTY — The hours volunteers spent working with Iza Shamsey paid off, as the 9-year-old leaned over on her saddle to throw multi-colored rings onto a nearby post last week.

Ramsey, sitting on the back of her new 1,000-pound friend, PJ, smiled at Beyond the Spectrum volunteer Helena Sponseller, who congratulated her for the progress she had made.

Just three hours before, Shamsey appeared stiff and timid on the mechanical horse she had to feel comfortable on before sitting on PJ.

Volunteers from nonprofit organizations Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy and Beyond the Spectrum work together from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., each Friday to achieve one goal — to help students with disabilities learn basic mobility and other functions that will help them in the future.

“Each activity we’ll do with the kids has the potential to teach them different things,” SMART’s volunteer Executive Director Gail Clifton said. “Then, there’s that feel-good part.”

The organizations, which both specialize in helping children who require extra attention physically and mentally, came together Jan. 29, after raising funding for the program through the Community Foundation of Sarasota County’s annual Giving Challenge.

With the foundation’s goal of marrying nonprofit organizations to provide services for those in need, the East County-based school, which specializes in educating children with autism, and the therapeutic riding program for individuals with mental and physical disabilities, seemed like a perfect match.

Occupational therapist and consultant for Beyond the Spectrum Kristen Bohan worked with the school’s founder, Catherine Peabody, to approach SMART with the idea of a partnership.

The organizations wanted to work together in the past, but needed the funds to pay for the program. It costs $25 per student per hour for the SMART program, Clifton said.

Through the Giving Challenge, Beyond the Spectrum raised about $14,000, while SMART contributed about $4,000 to the partnership.

Since Jan. 29, and for the next six weeks, students travel to SMART’s East County ranch, where volunteers from the organizations provide hands-on activities designed to improve the students’ strength and instill an “I can” attitude in the participants.

To Bohan, the importance is taking the children outside the classroom, to set down the worksheets and pick up the horses’ reigns.

“They (students) can use the hand strength they learn through the activities here to perform tasks such as carrying plates to the dinner table, and other everyday activities they may not have been able to do before,” Bohan said. “Many of the kids have balance issues, and riding horses will help them learn to shift their weight.”

Upon arriving at the 23-acre property on County Road 675, which consists of three barns, two riding arenas and a therapy center, students must first feel comfortable with the idea of being near a horse.

Clifton guides each child through the process of successfully riding a horse, while accompanied by other volunteers. The group uses an equisizer, or model horse with springs underneath, to simulate a real horseback riding experience. They then teach students terms for getting horses to walk and to stop.

Once students feel ready, they make their way to the arena. There, volunteers wait to lead horses around the arena while the children ride. After enough laps to make the children feel comfortable, the volunteers work with them to throw rings, balls and other objects at obstacles numbered throughout the arena. Students also learn to fill and carry buckets with water for the horses to drink.

As the students progress in the program and the partnership passes its halfway mark, Bohan hopes for a year-round agreement between the two parties. But, for now, Bohan and Clifton focus on achieving the school’s mission of physical and emotional health for its students.

“There’s something magical that happens between a child with disabilities and a horse,” Clifton said. “The horse is the real therapist there.”

Contact Amanda Sebastiano at [email protected].



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