SHAFTSBURY >> A charity program that provides scholarships for at-risk youth is accepting applications for its summer camp and year-round program at Kimberly Farm.
Gallop to Success links children ages 5 to 17 with horses as part of a three-phase program designed to help children heal. Scholarships available include a day camp for once a week for 12 weeks, summer overnight horse camp, and year-round camps for one to two times per week for attendance.
Executive Director Valerie Grey-Shemeth shared a story about two fraternal twins who were 10 years old, but one had autism. The little girl with autism was afraid of horses and very shy, but on the third day of the twins' attendance, she finally warmed up to the horses and she was smiling, running around and making her own friends.
"The goal is to develop four levels of behavior with them — confidence, self-esteem, honesty and leadership," Shemeth said. "Each level depends on the individual. Some leave and choose to do something else, and a vast majority sticks. There are many things in their [the children's] life we're not in control of."
The first level involves learning basic rules, regulations, and behavioral codes. Shemeth said for children that swear, there is a swear jar in which a dollar will be inserted or a dollar worth of work will be owed. Attendees also learn how to take care of the horses during this time, greet the public and learn other aspects of practical application skills.
The children then move on to becoming a mentor and typically pair up with new applicants. The last level is employment — whether it be on the farm or at another establishment relating to horses or farming. Shemeth said the program doesn't partner with specific employers, but Gallop to Success offers participants some guidance on how to conduct themselves when searching for a job. Program sponsors consist of Girl Scouts of America, United Counseling Services, YMCA of Vermont and The Bromley Brook Therapeutic Boarding School for Girls in Manchester.
"Some are the oldest and babysit for the other kids," Shemeth said. "Some stay till they're 18 and begin working and stay even longer or go into the community and work a real job. We've had a number of people over the years that opened their own horse riding business and others went on to be grooms in Saratoga Springs, N.Y."
Summer camp attendees are housed in a 1,000-square-foot bunkhouse and are taught how to care for a horse, use equipment, saddle a horse, ride a horse, manage a barn, field and pasture. Shemeth said studies have shown horses to be therapeutic and that she's seen children in the stalls expressing their life story while crying.
"Once the animal trusts you, you can pet them and have their head in your arm and stand close to them," she said. "They're [horses] all well behaved. They [children] just feel comfortable talking to the animals and recite their story."
In areas that have been hit bad economically like Bennington had in the past, a YMCA plays the role that Gallop to Success does, Shemeth said, but there isn't one in Bennington County.
"A lot of these families have children and have huge distress and look for avenues for things the kids will enjoy," she said. "These are motivated kids, occasionally it's a parent. Both parents are working and managing to provide a better life to their children or lost their job in 2008 and brought kids to them and need help. It's frequently a guidance counselor or teacher, therapist or mental health agency that approach us."
Brenda, who became the caregiver of Morgan after being in 10 different homes, said the program bettered the child 95 percent from when she first moved in with Brenda.
"There is definitely a big improvement," Brenda said. "She's smart and would be devastated if she couldn't go [to the farm]. She definitely wants to go to college. Her dream is to become an equine vet."
Morgan has since relocated to her aunt's home and is working with her horse there to be able to bring it to Kimberly Farm this summer while she works there as well. She started the program when she was 9 and will be 16 this summer.
"She loves it there and looked forward to it all year long," Brenda said. "She would tell me 'horses don't judge you and horses listen.'"
Kimberly Farms has been running for 25 years and is located at 1214 Cross Hill Rd. in Shaftsbury. Applications for the three scholarships can be found at www.galloptosuccess.org.