On a peaceful, fall evening at the SMART ranch, Gail Clifton stood steady as a post, holding a horse's head as they both faced an incredibly beautiful sunset.
Neither the horse, Logan, or Clifton moved for several minutes as SMART riding instructor Samantha Toomey painstakingly made sure Kelly Miller felt safe before she mounted a horse for the very first time.
For those unfamiliar with the local not-for-profit organization, SMART stands for Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy, an organization that allows those with physical and mental challenges to ride to their ability and learn to care for horses.
That interaction has produced some very important benefits, such as an increase in strength and stamina, an improvement in posture, and improved attention span and independent skills.
As darkness fell along County Road 675 and the ranch's 23 acres, Clifton wasn't about to sing the organization's praises. She had her hands full being still. It takes time and incredible patience to produce the atmosphere necessary to work miracles.
Clifton was a former executive director of the organization and a volunteer for 18 years, when she had the "former" removed last July. When a previous hire as executive director didn't work out, Clifton was drawn back into executive director duty.
Now she has the patience, but not the time to do what has become most rewarding to her ... helping the clients.
"You've got to love Miss Gail," said SMART Administrative Assistant Brandi Ezell of Clifton. "If it is safe and possible, she is going to make it happen. Her heart is in the barn with the students. When she has to be the executive director, it takes away from all this."
"All this" simply is amazing,
With Toomey setting the tone with her soft voice and calm demeanor, a group of volunteers, including Clifton, give the clients the personal attention they need. That can add up to uncounted hours of attention.
Back to that time thing again.
Clifton knows that being the organization's executive director is a tremendous task. Like any not-for-profit, their service is a direct product of their funding. They have to work hard to secure that funding.
Last week, SMART received a $5,000 grant from Autism License Plate Proceeds to support children with autism who participate in the organization's therapeutic riding program.
With only 12 Florida not-for-profit organizations benefitting from the Autism Services Grants Council fund of $57,050, Clifton points out that a certain trust in their work as been built over time. That money will lead to 200 therapeutic riding sessions for 20 children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorder.
Autism is only one of the challenges that SMART's clients face. So the program has to be aggressive in finding grants.
"For us, there is no such things as a small grant," Clifton said. "Sixty percent of the people in our program are on a full scholarship. We're always looking for the next $5,000 grant."
The nature of SMART's work, however, might have caused a bit of an understanding when people started to apply for the executive director's job.
Clifton explained that those who applied wanted to work with horses and the clients.
"We need someone to sit behind a computer and bring in money," Clifton said.
SMART just posted the executive director's job again, this time with the emphasis on fundraising and grant writing.
Meanwhile, the organization continues to serve more than 600 clients a year.
"We don't need to hire another instructor," Clifton said. "We need to make sure we keep our finances straight."
With an annual budget of about $400,000, SMART also is limited what it can pay a director, somewhere in the neighborhood of $50,000 to $55,000.
While the process lingers, Clifton will remain as executive director.
"I would never walk away," she said with a laugh. "Caring about this has been my passion. But I am eager to pass this baby on."