Brandi Ezell, executive director for Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy, felt strongly her organization could be of assistance to other nonprofits in Manatee County.
It took one phone call for her to find out she was right.
“I had been following the Mark Wandall Foundation for a while,” Ezell said. “It was on my list of organizations to make contact with when we were ready to add an additional program.”
Ezell called Melissa Wandall, founder of the Mark Wandall Foundation, and they immediately knew it could be a perfect partnership.
Wandall said she always has known SMART has a positive effect in a “beautiful way,” on those who use the program.
“I was so honored that she called, that she believed in our mission and wanted to partner with us in order to help our kids,” Wandall said. “It is going to be incredible.”
SMART and the Mark Wandall Foundation will kick off their partnership on Dec. 2. Children from the Mark Wandall Foundation will meet at SMART for two hours of equine therapy.
Children from the Mark Wandall Foundation will have access to SMART once a month.
Ezell said the children will learned relationship building and leadership skills while spending time with the horses.
“They are going to learn to nurture the horses, learn to feed them and see what makes the horses feel good,” Wandall said. “In turn, they will learn they need to nurture themselves in order to move through their grief.”
Ezell said the SMART program is based around empathy, acceptance and compassion, which she said is what the Wandall Foundation kids need most. “We are not here to psychoanalyze them,” Ezell said.
“We are here to teach them life skills by partnering them with our horses.”
The Mark Wandall Foundation facilitates programs for children in grief due to a loss of a parent or guardian. Melissa Wandall started the Mark Wandall Foundation in 2004 after her husband, Mark Wandall, was killed in a traffic crash in 2003, just days before their daughter, Madisyn, was born.
“Once a parent, sibling or guardian passes, life does not taste the same for these kids again,” Wandall said. “They are trying to navigate that loss, so they become separated from their own peers because their peers just can’t understand what they are going through.”
Parrish’s Lindsey Wagner and her daughters Hailey, 8, and Sydney, 6, have been involved with the Mark Wandall Foundation for three years.
In October, they were able to drive by SMART to take a look.
“I pointed out to my daughters what it was, and I explained we’d be having reconnects there and hanging with the horses,” Lindsey Wagner said. “It will give them good coping skills and will help them to work together, and to connect with those who are like them. It makes them feel less alone.”
Ezell is grateful to help.
“These kids deserve to be kids,” Ezell said.
She said she looks forward to having the children experience the type of unconditional acceptance horses can give.