SPECIAL NEEDS MEET SPECIAL STEEDS

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Students awaits near their horses as they await further instruction | Courtesy Photo Rusty Strait

Rusty Strait | Senior Reporter

T.H.E. CENTER in Hemet has for almost forty years been assisting special needs children. Founded by Theresa Wilhelm in 1984 T.H.E. CENTER has assisted thousands of young people, not just special needs but all kids. Their summer program, currently under the guiding hand of Becky Polk, continues to grow.

I had the privilege of sitting down with Becky this week and here is how it went:

Q: What is the summer program about?

A: We have a summer camp for three weeks which just finished up. This year we had 36 campers, a different set of campers each week. The normal fee is $225 per week. This year we were able to sponsor eighteen of those campers who come from low-income families. We work with Freedom House Church and My City Youth.

Q: How do you apply equestrian healing?

A: I’m not a therapist, but what we do is use different kinds of exercises when they are on the horse. Different kinds of positions to strengthen their backs and limbs. Much of it has to do with mentality. These kids love riding horses. They enjoy the rhythm and gait of the horse as it walks. We don’t do anything strenuous.

Q: How about your special-needs children? What are their needs?

A: We work with cerebral palsy, down’s syndrome and autism. We can handle any type of disability that might be involved through the use of our horses. The children go through an orientation and evaluations. A doctor approves what they can and cannot do or be involved in. Doctors believe strongly in horse therapy.

Q: Do the horses have a training regime?

A: Oh yes. I have horse trainers who work with the horses, making sure that our horses are gentle and obedient and easy to handle. They spend a great deal of time teaching the kids to do the training themselves.

Q: I understand that special needs kids bond with the horses from the get go.

A: Oh, yes. They love the horses. They groom them and learn how to feed and water the animals. All of that is part of their therapy with the horses.

Q: How long have you been doing this here?

A: I’ve been here a year. But, as you know, the program has preceded me by several decades.

Q: Do you plan to expand this program?

A: We want to expand. At one time, they did have a veteran’s program. I would like to reestablish that. The problem there is finding horses that can accommodate the weight of an adult. Our current weight limit is 180 pounds.

Q: What are the ages of those in the program?

A: Five to eighteen.

Q: Is that broken down into age groups?

A: No. It is always 5 to 18.

Q: How do the parents respond to this program?

A: Most of them are overjoyed, especially when they see the progress in their children. That’s especially true to parents who were pretty much quarantined in their homes with their children for two years during the COVID pandemic. The children have lots of questions and curiosity about the pandemic. Some suffer trauma from it. That’s another plus for the horse therapy. It gets both parent and child’s minds off those two years.

Q: Who helps with the program? I’m sure you don’t do it alone.

A: Heavens no. We have volunteers. Actually some of our students come back to volunteer. We have a volunteer training program. We had 18 volunteers this year. One of our students in the program, Bobby Testa, will be back next year as a volunteer. We have them from teenage and up.

Q: How does this program affect you?

A It is a lot of work, but it is so rewarding. I run the organization, but I have so many people who do different things with the horses and with the students. It brings me so much joy that they get joy out of what they’re doing.

Horse therapy is a very serious business and I will be doing a follow up article and just how it works and how much it has grown over the past few years.

Whether you enjoy being around horses is not the issue. The kids love them and what it does to their future is nothing short of awesome. I wonder if they have a program for journalists? Just sayin’

rustystrait@alice-petersen


• DISCLAIMER: The opinions, beliefs and viewpoints expressed by the various author’s articles on this Opinion piece or elsewhere online or in the newspaper where we have articles with the header “COLUMN/EDITORIAL & OPINION” do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and viewpoints or official policies of the Publisher, Editor, Reporters or anybody else in the Staff of the Hemet and San Jacinto Chronicle Newspaper.

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