When Dionne Lester’s daughter, Danielle, was diagnosed with cerebral palsy at 11 months old, doctors told Lester and her husband, Darryl, that Danielle might never walk or talk.
“I remember kind of mourning for a while,’” says Dionne Lester.
But then, she says, they realized what a blessing Danielle is, “and I became more engaged and proactive.”
Her desire to take hold of Danielle’s brain disorder led her to Horse & Buddy, a therapeutic horseback riding program for children with disabilities.
Five-year-old Danielle’s progress through the program has been awe-inspiring, says her mother.
Horse & Buddy is in the middle of its own transformation, as it raises funds to move out of a host facility and into its own 35-acre complex in Cary in January.
The campaign, now in its second year, has a goal of raising $500,000 for a new arena, stables and horses to be housed on a parcel of land in Cary, donated by an area businessman who asked to remain anonymous.
“I thought he was insane,” says Janet Mason, the group’s executive director, of the offer. “I thought, ‘This doesn’t happen in real life.’”
The group so far has raised $100,000, most of it from individuals who hear about the program through word of mouth.
Currently, 30 children come weekly to Victory Hill Farm in New Hill for lessons, but Mason hopes so serve 200 children each week with the new center.
Once construction is complete, she will be able to expand lessons from just five hours a week to as many as 40, and the indoor arena will mean that no one misses a lesson because of bad weather.
Another aim of the campaign is to create room in the budget for paid positions, Mason says.
Currently, the riding instructors are the only paid employees, and all others volunteer their time, including Mason, her program director and the side-walkers who accompany the riders.
Mason started the program when she was out of work five years ago and has since returned to doing contract work for IBM so she can pay the bills, she says.
“It is like having two full-time jobs,” she says. “I’ll be so glad when I can do this full time, because this [program] needs me.”
She points to success stories, like that of an autistic boy whose mother gushes that he said his first proper “hello” from the back of a horse.
“A lot of kids with autism will speak more on the horse than in therapy or at home, Mason says. “Every time [something like that] happens, it’s like a new miracle to me. It reconfirms why I want to be able to do this for the rest of my life.”
Lester credits the program with giving her daughter the self-confidence and mobility to enter a mainstream kindergarten class and keep up with her peers.
While Danielle uses a walker to get around, horseback riding has done wonders for her muscle tone, balance and flexibility, says Lester.
“We tried water therapy for a while, but Horse & Buddy has been the mainstay,” she says. “It’s the one thing I don’t have to fight to get her to.”
Lester says the program also helps her find the support she needs to stay in control and help her daughter progress.
For example, the mother of an older boy in the program, who also has cerebral palsy, helped prepare Lester for what to expect from Danielle’s condition as her daughter gets older.
And while the support of other parents has been vital, Lester says, the volunteers are the people who keep the program afloat through their compassion and love for the children.
“That just amazes me that they are so dedicated to the children,” she says. “It’s not just about the program; it’s about building a family.”