STARKSBORO -- The dozen or so kids who get dropped off at Sentinel Farms some mornings during the summer frequently start the day by doing farm chores, but mucking out horse stalls and sweeping the barn eventually leads to riding the horses and, along the way, learning lessons they might not otherwise get.
The four-week camp, run by the nonprofit organization Unbound Grace, will take any child who wants to learn and many are on full scholarship. Some come from families dealing with alcohol or drugs while others have lost parents or friends to suicide and some have been tormented in school, all scars that can last a lifetime. Some of the children are referred to Unbound Grace by counselors, others by their parents. Coming at a time when Vermont is trying to break its grip on heroin and other opiate drugs, the camp is designed to help children choose a different path for themselves, said camp president Kerry Kurt.
"All our children are doing is using their thumbs to play video games, and there's a heck of a lot more to learning how to be humane, and one of them is learning how to sweep an aisle appropriately, learning how to clean a stall thoroughly," Kurt said.
Sometimes boys will come to the camp without ever having used a tool.
"He gets to use a hammer for the first time, a saw, a weed whacker, learn how to use a shovel, but really what this program is about is teaching kids to be in touch with their body as a tool and know how to use other tools," Kurt said.
The campers can pick raspberries or swim in a nearby river and spend one night sleeping out, new experiences for some of the children who come from backgrounds that could lead them into the world of drugs or despair.
"You just feel so important. You have a place here. I'm here, it's important that I'm here," said Emily Lowell, 14, of Starksboro, who attended the camp last week.
Eliciting that kind of reaction is the goal of the camp. The organization is also designed to help integrate children with Vermont's traditional working landscape.
Kurt served three terms in the Vermont legislature in the 1990s. She moved to Colorado for several years, working in prisons and with the homeless. She always planned to return to Vermont to work with children near where she grew up in Charlotte.
The camp is more than just horseback riding, but that's what the kids remember.
"When the wind whistles gently in your ear and you suddenly have no fear," said a line in a poem written and recited by 11-year-old Scout Hall. "Oh, when the sun shines down on your face at the horseback camp Unbound Grace."