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Charity Snapshot: Bridling the Challenge

SMART’s new executive director took the reins with a clear plan for the organization. Then the pandemic hit.

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  • | 11:30 a.m. August 20, 2020
  • LWR Life
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An interaction with a tenacious and cheery Rebecca Blitz makes it abundantly clear how she has quickly risen to leadership positions with several nonprofits in the area throughout the past decade, including the local chapter of the Make-A-Wish Foundation and The Haven.

Her latest role, however, combines her knack for fundraising with a lifelong passion for horses. Blitz became the executive director of the Sarasota-Manatee Association for Riding Therapy on April 1. The next day, the organization, which offers therapeutic riding programs for children with special needs and veterans, among others, shut down programming due to COVID-19.

Despite what could have been a catastrophic hurdle for Blitz, she strapped into the SMART saddle and corralled her team of volunteers to continue the work. Since taking the role, she’s been busy cleaning and updating facilities, caring for the horses that live on the 23-acre facility and dreaming up unique fundraising opportunities to expand programming. We spoke to Blitz about her transition and what she sees ahead.


How did you get into nonprofit work?

I had a great group of individuals that mentored me and took me under their reins and taught me. But, you know, it was really Jaymie Klauber who got me into development. After that I just didn’t have a choice. I never went back. Fundraising just happened organically for me, if you will.

Where does your love of horses come from?

I have had one since I was in kindergarten, so it’s my passion. There is this connection between horses and me. When we moved to Colorado, my parents (both Air Force veterans) sold my horse, and it was the worst day of my life. Then after we moved to Colorado, I got back into horses. When I transferred to Kansas State University, one of my electives was horseback riding.

How did you discover SMART?

I went out to volunteer with my daughter because she really, really loves horses — I think it’s in her DNA or something. I absolutely loved everything this organization stands for. During the tour, they told me all the nonprofits they worked with and partnered with, and something happened in me. I was like, “Whoa, you mean to tell me all the nonprofits I am passionate about, you’re already working with?” I can’t describe it, but when I put my feet down on the ground, it’s just a really great place. The energy, the people, the volunteers — we are completely volunteer-driven, and it is a powerhouse of amazing individuals that just want to give back.

What drew you to this job?

Raising funds to feed and care for SMART’s horses remains a challenge for new Executive Director Rebecca Blitz.
Raising funds to feed and care for SMART’s horses remains a challenge for new Executive Director Rebecca Blitz.

There are so many great nonprofits in Sarasota, and I want to work with all of them. SMART gives me a chance to do that. For example, we work with sex-trafficking victims. And we work with military groups through a program called Warriors in Transition. They come from the VA hospital in St. Petersburg, and they are dealing with [post-traumatic stress disorder]. Some of them have struggles like having lost a limb or being wheelchair-bound, and this is a place where they can be themselves. And we work with the Mark Wandall Foundation for children dealing with the loss of a sibling or parent. We don’t ride with them, but it’s more emotional support, and each child is partnered with a horse. There is a connection that a horse has, and it just brings out the best in you. You may come out sad, but you leave feeling happier.

What challenges do you face?

SMART has been around a long time, but it somehow got lost along the way. We are just trying to bring it back to where it needs to be and also actively take it to a new level with new programs. We can do so much out here. But right now, I am just trying to get funds in to feed our horses. We’ve had to cut back on things and had to review everything — our electric bills, our water bills, our phone bills — to know how we are doing; we are asking what can we cut and what can we change.

How do you fundraise during a pandemic?

As a whole, people are still passionate about giving, but it’s also a struggle because you don’t know what the future holds. People have lost their jobs, and we’ve been very respectful of that. I am trying to work my way in these challenging times. These are uncharted waters. And because of COVID-19, I can’t have an event. Even though we follow the CDC guidelines and make sure that everything stays clean, and we stay at our social distance, I don’t want to have an event and put anybody in harm’s way. I am planning a virtual fundraiser … I am also looking at more virtual programs like sponsoring a horse. People could pick a horse and give $20 a month, $50 or even $100, just to help out.

What do you think nonprofits need most right now?

For nonprofits across the board, I think it would be unrestricted funds. Things pop up. Like for me, all of a sudden, I have a fence that a horse went through, and I need to fix it, or our AC units are down — we have to fix it. And when you have restricted funds, you’re stuck. You can’t move the funds without having to contact the foundation. Everybody has to find what is important in their world. For some people, it’s animals; others, it’s feeding the hungry. Find what you are passionate about, and give to them because in these challenging times, they are so grateful, and it’s so needed because we can’t have events and talk about why we what we do is good and important.

So what’s ahead for SMART?

I’d like to create awareness about the wonderful things we do and the programs we offer. Our logo just says SMART, and many people thought it was a literacy program. I’d like to create more programs, help more people and raise more funds. Many of my friends are CEOs of nonprofits, and we can start working together and partnering and helping each other out — especially in these times.


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