By Chris Abbott, Postmedia Network
On Friday, Sept. 15, Community Options for Justice (Oxford) hosted a recognition event at Spirit’s Whisper Ranch, south of Straffordville, to celebrate the completion of a one-year funding grant from Ontario Trillium Foundation that allowed youth in conflict with the law to participate in a Horse-Guided Learning program.
Local MPPs Jeff Yurek and Ernie Hardeman were on hand to congratulate staff members and hear more about how this innovative initiative will have a positive impact on the lives of at-risk youths.
“I want to take this opportunity to congratulate Community Options for Justice on the completion of the Horse-Guided Learning program,” said Yurek, MPP for Elgin-Middlesex-London. “I also want to give a sincere thank you to the Ontario Trillium Foundation for the $29,100 grant to assist in funding this program. Horses have a special ability to connect with humans to provide complementary therapy to traditional methods. I am proud that Spirit’s Whisper Ranch is able to provide this therapy to some of our most vulnerable youth. Congratulations on the successful completion of the program and for the continued support of our youth.
“I think it’s great that two different counties were able to work together to provide a valuable service that the government cannot offer,” said Yurek, who was visiting Spirit’s Whisper Ranch for the first time. “Very impressed. Seeing the horses out free, wandering around, it’ like a gem hidden in the forest here. I’m really impressed Kristi…
“Look, her house,” Yurek smiled, pointing in the direction of Rockley’s connected house-barn facility, “is part of the barn. I kind of like the window with the horses coming in – it’s better than TV.”
“I want to commend the many people who worked hard to bring this amazing program to fruition,” said Hardeman, MPP for Oxford. “Providing the opportunity for youth in conflict to learn more about themselves and the world around them through Horse-Guided learning benefits not only the participants but the facilitators and the broader community for years to come.”
The grant from the Ontario Trillium Foundation allowed hard-to-engage youth in Oxford County who are facing complex or multiple barriers with an effective, alternative therapeutic resource – Horse-Guided Learning. As a result of their guided interactions with the Spirit’s Whisper horses, the youth learned empowerment, improved self-regulation and increased awareness of self and others.
“We just talked about the value of the program,” said Hardeman following a plaque presentation at Rockey’s Spirit’s Whisper Ranch, “and the fact that it was set up to help communities help themselves. This is one of those situations where the basic thrust of it may not have qualified, but because of the quality of the application – they provide a unique service to the community that no one else does – we’re here as a testament to its importance.
“We want to commend them for their work.”
“Having access to a resource that is ‘experiential’ in nature and goes beyond traditional talk-based supports is invaluable as we try to connect with young people,” said Program Supervisor Rory Offen. “The grant from Ontario Trillium Foundation allowed us to offer this wonderful service and clearly impacted the lives of the youth we serve, their families and the community as a whole.”
Community Options for Justice (Oxford) assists people who are in conflict with the law to take responsibility for their actions through community work, education and skill development, victim awareness and lifestyle choices.
“We were looking for additional supports for our youth diversion clients, so we applied for funding through OTF, and got the one-year funding to do this unique program,” said Offen. “Part of the rationale is, we were looking at the hard-to-engage youth who are facing multiple or complex barriers, and/or have done programs before but haven’t got the full benefits from the more traditional programs, which are paper exercises, talk-based, that type of stuff.
“This is a very different type of experience. The interaction with the animal changes that dynamic. That was part of the feedback we got, ‘I like the horses because they don’t talk back to me. They listen, but they don’t tell me what to do.'”
Offen said the calming affect – being in a calm place of serenity – was noticeable.
“We did individual programming (10 individuals and a few family sessions) and we also did two summer camps (14 youth from Oxford County). We got great feedback from the youth, and great feedback from parents and guardians.
“The horses are the stars – without the horses, this doesn’t happen. They’re not props that we have in the background, the horses are central to it. All the work is done with them. But definitely, Kristi also plays a central role, because we’re not going to be able to interpret the horses – what they’re saying – without her in that role. They’re a duo – you can’t have Kristi without horses, you can’t have horses without Kristi. She definitely is a central component of the program.
“I’ve been down numerous times with our youth, with police we brought down here, with our other referral sources, and I’ve been down for my own experiences,” said Offen. “And without Kristi, I’m just with a horse. She interprets behaviours and interactions, and ask questions to get you thinking. It becomes a totally different dynamic. It really is a fabulous, fabulous experience.”
Quoting one of the youth, Offen said, ‘I don’t know how anyone can leave here without a smile on their face.’ To me that kind of summarizes what goes on around here. It’s a magical place. Great things happen here. It’s a wonderful resource that we have available.”
Spirit’s Whisper Ranch, said Rockley, welcomes opportunities to introduce the horses to ‘all walks of life.’
“They want to do this work,” said Rockley. “They want to help bring us to our truth, because they show us who we are supposed to be… as our authentic person, not who society tells us, or parents, or family or whoever else. They mirror what’s going on within us so we can find the courage to walk our own independent journey and be okay with that, know that we’re unique and different.”
A former police officer, Rockley said her experience gave her a ‘huge foundation.’
“For some who have had a negative experience with police, it’s nice to be able to change that or sort of influence that in a positive way, that it’s not all one direction.”
She told some up front, some later in the program.
“They all eventually find out, and it’s interesting for those especially who have had a negative experience. When they find out later, it’s like ‘Hey! I kind of like you now, but hang on a minute…’
“One hundred per cent, I know that I needed that near 20 years of what I did – and even though I loved it and it’s totally different in this aspect – that is what made me who I am now for doing this and carrying forward. So it all impacts.”
Spirit’s Whisper Ranch, which will begin its seventh year in October, is currently home to 11 horses.
“We had some good weeks of youth camp and were able to get different groups out this summer,” said Rockley.
“It’s just hard to believe that summer’s over and that we’re into September already,” she laughed.
Programs at the Straffordville ranch continue year-round.
“That’s the beauty of having the (horse) arena, for heavy winter or inclement weather days. We go rain or shine.
“Horses don’t like waiting just for nice weather,” she smiled. “So bring it all year. When someone wants help, you don’t want to say ‘there’s a six-month waiting list, or a year, or whatever.’ Here, they’re in the moment and say ‘Come. Bring it.’ If you’re here, if you’re open to the experience, then they will connect. That’s the awesome thing about them. ‘Just come and be.'”
An agency of the Government of Ontario, the Ontario Trillium Foundation (OTF) is one of Canada’s largest granting foundations. With a budget of over $136 million, OTF awards grants to some 1,000 projects every year to build healthy and vibrant Ontario communities (www.otf.ca)