Volunteering with “Team Cliff”
by Debi DeLorenzo
When I began volunteering at SHHRC (Mane Stream began as Somerset Hills Handicapped Riding Center (SHHRC)) five years ago, I never imagined I would get so much back from the experience. The people at the SHHRC barn are the kindest, most self-less, caring people I have ever met. The staff, students, fellow volunteers and of course, the horses, make it a very special place. Wonderful things happen at “The Barn”. When you see a person who cannot walk suddenly become mobile on the back of a horse, it can take your breath away. I have seen children arrive quiet and sad, only to burst out in smiles on the back of the horse.
Right before my first group lesson, Kathy Brennan(Hart), the instructor, told me about my rider. She told me his name was Cliff, and that he could not speak or hear, and was extremely visually impaired. He also had trouble walking. When Cliff made his way into the mounting area, he began shaking hands with everyone, just like a politician. He got up on his horse, and that was the start of “Team Cliff”. Tara, the horse leader, Chris, the co-side walker, and I have formed a wonderful bond with Cliff that I cannot explain. There is an amazing amount of trust between all of us. Cliff knows we would never let anything bad happen to him. Kathy has taught us some simple sign-language so we can guide him on the horse, but sometimes we just need a look or a touch to get the point across.
We have learned the sign for “steer”, “circle the barrel”, “jump”, “halt”, etc., and if we really want to get Cliff excited, we just have to sign “trot”. Cliff grins from ear to ear and the whole team just has to smile. “Team Cliff” and Kathy took a sign language class in the evening so we could better communicate with him. We even signed “Twinkle Twinkle Little Star” for him after our last sign language class. Cliff was not impressed by a bunch of grown women singing a childrens’ song though, and Kathy felt he might even be gently mocking us, just a bit!
In the years that we have been with Cliff, we have truly grown to love him. We worry when he isn’t there, we know when he is having an off day, and miss him like crazy when there are no lessons. He has added such love and happiness to our lives. He makes us smile, laugh, and during the “Horse Show”, we beamed with pride as he had his ribbon placed on his horse.
I wish we could bottle the “feeling” you get when you volunteer at SHHRC. You definitely get back more than you give. I feel truly blessed to have the opportunity to help in just a small way.
The following letter was written by a 19 year old girl named Alexa (on right), who was a volunteer for about 2 years. Alexa has gone on to college now, and has mentioned that volunteering at SHHRC (Mane Stream began as Somerset Hills Handicapped Riding Center (SHHRC)) led to her future career choice of becoming a Special Education teacher. Alexa has ridden horses since she was a little girl, so she’s very comfortable around them. She had thought about volunteering at SHHRC for a year or so before she began, but was afraid that she would feel uncomfortable around people with disabilities as she had no experience with them. Then, Alexa developed Juvenile Rheumatoid Arthritis, which led her to a new appreciation for what someone with a disability might go through on a daily basis. This convinced her to give volunteering a try.
Alexa wrote an essay for her college application which described her experiences at SHHRC. In it she says “As we led the horses into the ring, I was extremely excited and anxious to meet my “person”. The instructor told me that my rider was named Terry. As we waited for the riders to be brought into the ring, I pictured a young girl who would squeal with delight at the sight of her horse. I wondered what her disability would be, and couldn’t wait to meet her and help her enjoy her ride. Terry was the last rider to arrive. When I turned to greet her I saw an elderly woman making her way into the riding ring, with a cane in one hand and the instructor holding her arm. It was a bit of a shock to find out that this was Terry! I had automatically assumed that I would be working with a child, even though I knew that SHHRC helped people of all ages. How would Terry like working with someone much younger than she was? Terry seemed to be quite nervous, and I knew it was important to make her feel more at ease. I introduced myself and she explained that she needed my assistance because her right arm & leg were weakened due to a stroke. We kept chatting, and I tried my best to encourage her. After the ride, I walked Terry outside and she thanked me for helping her. Actually, I felt like we had both helped each other! After working with Terry, I realized how much I enjoyed helping others. Since then, I have put in over 80 hours as an SHHRC volunteer, working with both children & adults. I am gratified as they advance in their riding skills, grow more positive in their outlook on life, interact with the volunteers and bond with the horses. New doors open up for me as I continue working with these amazing people. Although Terry introduced me to the idea of a career in special education, many riders, young & old have since dramatically influenced my life as well. They all helped pave the way to a future for me that is filled with love, passion & rewards as I help those in need accomplish their goals.”
Maggie Shaw volunteered with Mane Stream for over 3 years. She later became a member of Mane Stream’s barn staff during the summer and on her college breaks.
Maggie says: “I’ve always been an animal person. I remember going over to friends’ houses when I was little and being more excited to play with their pets than I was to play with them. As the years went on, I was still more partial to animals than I was to people, but interaction with dogs, cats & birds didn’t exactly build my confidence or people skills. When I heard about SHHRC (Mane Stream began as Somerset Hills Handicapped Riding Center (SHHRC)), I thought that I might enjoy working with the horses, so I decided to give it a shot. I’ll be honest though, my main goal was to become more familiar with the horses than the people. Then I met the individuals with whom I’d be working…Cheryl, Sean, Lindsay, Stacy & Alicia…five riders I’ll never forget. Each one seemed to have a drastically different personality, and they each made their own impression on me. Some were working with cognitive disabilities and others with physical disabilities. The people I met were kind and open. They were willing to talk about anything w/ me, but every single rider I encountered stopped talking & started smiling the second they saw “their” horse enter the mounting area. Although I’m unable to volunteer regularly now that I’m away at college, those smiles are what keep me coming back whenever I’m home. They remind me that this facility isn’t just for teaching people how to ride horses, or in my case, how to overcome shyness & insecurities. It’s a place where people can stop focusing on what may make them feel different at school or work, and have fun interacting with people and animals who don’t care about their differences, but just appreciate them for who they are.”
A Volunteer’s Story
by Rich Schwenn
In 2000 I began volunteering at SHHRC (Mane Stream began as Somerset Hills Handicapped Riding Center (SHHRC)). Shortly thereafter I met Ashley an enchanting young rider with Down syndrome whom I found it very easy to draw close to. Sometime after that my eldest daughter gave birth to a boy with Down syndrome. I shared this with everyone at SHHRC and was moved and delighted as the parents of kids with Downs stepped forward to help, some contacting my daughter with encouraging e-mails and all tendering advice to me and answering my questions freely. A small support network had formed. As time went on I tried whenever possible to be side-walker or leader for any of the kids with Downs that rode with us. I was trying to learn all I could. My particular bonding with Ashley continued and it was she who taught me more about the world of Down syndrome citizens than any book could possibly have done.
Even with limited speech she speaks for the Downs community and tells me the things I need to know. When I enter a room and she points to me, she’s saying, “This is how we say we like you.” When she playfully switches off the light, plunging us into darkness, she’s saying, “This is how we tease you.” When she carefully and politely eats her McDonalds, she’s saying, “This is how we socialize.” And when she entwines her arm in mine as we wait on the bench to mount up, she’s saying, “This is how we love you.” My arrival at SHHRC, my interaction with kids with Down syndrome and other disabilities, and the application of that knowledge for the benefit of my grandson, confirm my belief that there is a benign significance at work in the universe. Things don’t just happen.