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New director plans for SMART growth

Christine Kasten takes the reins as the first paid executive director of the Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy.

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  • | 6:00 a.m. May 6, 2015
Christine Kasten wants to foster stronger ties between local businesses and her new organization, SMART. Courtesy photo
Christine Kasten wants to foster stronger ties between local businesses and her new organization, SMART. Courtesy photo
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EAST COUNTY — When Christine Kasten visited the Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy (SMART), she wasn’t focused on job-interview jitters.

 “The first thing I remember was the beautiful pasture, pristine white fencing and an allegiance of volunteers,” Kasten said. “It felt like a kind of Disney World, and I wanted to be a part of it.”

On April 13, Kasten became the first paid executive director SMART has had in its 28 years of existence.

She takes on the role Gail Clifton held for 11 years on a volunteer basis for the organization, which provides therapeutic horse-related programs to children and adults with special needs.

According to Clifton, who will continue to volunteer for the organization, SMART continues to grow each year, and it needed a full-time, salaried employee.

“Over the last eight years, there has been exponential growth,” Clifton said. “It’s exciting to see.”

SMART currently has 433 riders, but Clifton believes that with sufficient financial and volunteer support SMART can comfortably handle up to 500 students.

Kasten, a mother of three, has spent her career in sales and marketing. 

The Iowa native sold pharmaceuticals, owned her own business in New Zealand, worked in the hospitality industry and was most recently the marketing director for the Venice Symphony. Now, she is ready to use her experience to benefit SMART.

 “I’ve been really blessed,” Kasten said. “The look on people’s faces when they arrive at SMART shows me I found the best job.”

Kasten hopes to surpass the annual $400,000 minimum the nonprofit needs to meet its expenses, including its mortgage and supplies, along with costs of cleaning barns and arenas.

“My main job here is to look for donations,” Kasten said. “Ninety percent of our funding comes from grants and donations. That’s a large portion.”

Kasten has already taken aim at projects she plans to prioritize, such as a roof for SMART’s main arena. The roof could cost more than $350,000, but SMART officials hope to accrue donations, such as steel and architectural drawings.

Kasten and Clifton hope to have the roof paid for by local donors within the next couple years, if not sooner.

“The look on people’s faces when they arrive at SMART shows me I found the best job.” – Christine Kasten, executive director of SMART

Because Clifton had a range of duties outside of her executive director role, she wasn’t able to solicit donations, attend community events and make connections with business leaders as often as the organization needed, she said.

Kasten is working to improve the organization’s relationship with corporations and introduce the hidden neighbor to its community.

Over the last month, Kasten has attended networking events through the Lakewood Ranch Business Alliance, for which her sister-in-law Heather Kasten is  executive director, and has given potential sponsors tours of the East County facility’s barns, arenas, new sensory trail and other areas of the acreage.

“My immediate goal is to expand SMART’s vision to the corporate community in Sarasota and Manatee counties,” Kasten said,  “We do wonderful things out here, and I want others to be aware of that.”

Kasten won the position over nine other qualified applicants, said Clifton, a member of the selection committee.

Interviewees met with caretakers, instructors, a search committee and a range of other individuals involved with the organization.

“We were lucky,” Clifton said. “We had so many qualified people apply. We were looking for someone who wants to come in and raise money, get new donors and reach deeper into our community.”



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