By Ellen Nason
“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, wheelchair-accessible facility that enables it to provide an opportunity for more people with disabilities to gain new freedom, set new goals and reach new heights. (Watch this video about the riders at the center.)
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 proved 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 positive 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 developmental disabilities that can create social anxiety, attention issues and sensory dysfunction, but not everyone with the genetic disorder faces all the same challenges.
While Walker faced some attention issues, he is very social and craves contact with other people.
His mother, Mary Ann Haase, said she began to see him develop adaptive skills that helped him address the attention issues and make other positive change when he began to ride horses at age 5.
“I’m excited by the growth I’ve seen,” said Haase. “Walker is probably the happiest person I know. He makes me laugh every day.”
“He has a connection to the horses,” she added. “Riding a horse gives him a sense of mastery, and he’s proud of what he does. 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 wheelchair-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 positive result of the therapy sessions. 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 moms’ and dads’ eyes. This matters, and it changes lives.”
If you want to learn more about New Heights Therapy Center or access information about volunteering or donating, please go to the center’s website, http://www.newheightstherapy.org/.