“Can I do it myself?” asked Maddie Gilliland, as she grasped a grooming brush. “Look how tall I am,” said the tiny 4-year-old sitting atop Stella, a very big horse.
Maddie, who was born with spina bifida, was not expected to have the mobility to be the independent child she has become. But since beginning therapeutic riding sessions at New Heights Therapy Center in Folsom, La., she has gained freedom, confidence and the opportunity to live the full, active life that once seemed out of reach.
“It makes my heart be happy,” said Maddie as she prepared to begin a new therapy session with the horse she has learned to love and trust.
“One of her doctors said she’s never going to walk, she’ll probably be in a wheelchair early on … let’s be realistic,” said Maddie’s mom, Selina Gilliland. “I don’t do realistic very well so we kept pushing.”
Gilliland said that within six months of beginning New Heights’ hippotherapy program, her daughter had “reset her shocks” and not only had improved her coordination and balance but took her first steps.
“The first time she walked across the room and made the corner was huge for us,” said Gilliland. “It took so much strength. To see her realize she was unstoppable … it’s hard to put into words. She believes in herself and has no reason to think she can’t do anything. It has far surpassed our hopes. She’s going to be just fine.”
Maddie’s story of courage and perseverance is one of many shared during a recent visit to New Heights Therapy Center, a Humana Communities Benefit grant recipient. The center used the $100,000 grant to help build a unique, wheel-chair accessible facility that enables it to provide an opportunity for more children and adults with disabilities to gain new freedom, set new goals and reach new heights. (To watch video, click here.)
Jordan Landry, 9
Jordan Landry’s parents were also told that their child might be confined to a wheelchair. But Jordan, who has cerebral palsy, has proven all the experts wrong.
“She walks, she runs,” said her mother, Heather Landry. “The first day (of hippotherapy) was scary for me. She couldn’t sit up or walk because her core muscles were not strong. The rocking motion of riding the horses helps stimulate muscles. The kids don’t realize it’s therapy, which they tend to complain about … but this is fun. Within six months of beginning the program, Jordan started walking. She has blossomed. She’s strong, vibrant, determined and can do what she sets her mind to do. This has given me hope for Jordan’s future.”
Landry said she is thrilled with the new facility and the opportunity it offers to Jordan and others with disabilities.
“It touches my heart when volunteers and organizations like Humana give time and money,” said Landry. “It matters. We just find it amazing that so many people care. It’s overwhelming. The new facility is amazing.”
The time spent at the therapy center has had more than a physical effect on Jordan, who wants to give back to others, perhaps by becoming a therapist.
“It’s like I’m in mid-air when I’m riding. I see every single thing,” said Jordan. “I just wish every single person feels the joy and happiness and everything that I feel talking to the horses and hearing the horses neigh.”
“If we didn’t raise money (for New Heights), I wouldn’t be here at all,” she said, thanking everyone who gives time or money.
Walker Haase, 20.
Walker Haase was born with fragile X syndrome, which causes development disabilities that created anxiety about the people around him, attention issues and sensory dysfunction.
His mother, Mary Ann Haase, said she began to see a positive change in her son when he began to ride horses at age 5. “Walker is probably the happiest person I know,” she said. “He makes me laugh every day.”
“He has a connection to the horses and is less reluctant to show affection with them than he is with people,” said Haase. “I’m excited in the growth I’ve seen. It (therapeutic riding) has led to a new independence, helped with attention issues and built his self-confidence.”
“Riding a horse gives him a sense of mastery, and he’s proud of what he does,” she added. “It really gives him confidence, a sense that he’s good at something and that he was worth. There is no replacement for that.”
Stephen Engro, Executive Director of New Heights Therapy Center
New Heights Therapy Center was established in 1998 with a mission to improve the quality of life for children and adults who are physically, cognitively and emotionally challenged. Since that time, it has changed hundreds of lives and grown into one of the most unique facilities of its kind in the Mid-South region of the country.
Stephen Engro, Executive Director of New Heights, said the Humana Foundation grant helped the center move out of three temporary buildings to the current covered facility that is fully accessible for those who are wheel-chair bound.
“The grant had a ripple effect, and helped us secure further funding that will help us to continue to grow and serve so many more people,” said Engro, who plans to expand the center services later this year to include a Horses for Heroes program, which would focus on veterans and military personnel who have been wounded.
“The donors and volunteers are the backbone of this organization,” he said. “The commitment of our volunteers, who come out here and clean horse stalls, is amazing.”
Engro said he also sees a ripple effect with the therapy session. It not only has a transformative effect on the riders, but enriches the lives of the riders’ families, the volunteers and at-risk youth who are assigned to help take care of the animals.
“Seeing the newfound sense of freedom and accomplishment on a daily basis provides a sense of fulfillment that is beyond words,” said Engro. “Even the small steps forward are big miracles in the mom’s and dad’s eyes. This matters, and it changes lives.”