''My mother always told me I would outgrow my love of horses. It is the only thing she was ever wrong about,'' so says Debbie Meeker of The Camelot Center, a non-profit equine assisted therapeutic riding program.
Debbie has managed to develop her love of horses and her love of helping others into a full time occupation. The center helps children with emotional, physical or mental challenges, as well as the learning disabled, under privileged, or able-bodied adults to gain calm and self-confidence by riding horses.
The center has been in existence since 1994, originally being housed in Liberty under the ownership of Tom and Karen Rathburn. Since then it has gone through multiple rented facilities until resting in its permanent space on 74 acres of donated land in Southington.
Answering an advertisement that she saw in the Tribune Chronicle in 1995, Debbie has grown from volunteer, to employee to director. She runs the facility with two employees and multiple volunteers.
Her assistant instructor, Bobby Fritz, was horse crazy beginning when he was just a little boy. Growing up in Geneva, he had limited access to horses but always managed to be around them when he could. He started volunteering just about as early as Debbie did and the two of them have made a formidable team. Their barn assistant, Sean Roberts, keeps the place tidy and the manure pile under control.
Students come as individuals or from multi-handicapped school groups. Lessons are generally between 45 minutes and an hour. Each student has three people assigned, one person leading the horse and volunteers on both sides to make sure they are secure in the saddle.
The horses are mostly middle-aged and donated. A few were rescued when their owners were no longer able to care for them. Their docile behavior insures a safe and fun ride for the students. Most of the saddles and other equipment used are donated as well.
The center features a small indoor arena and trail rides. The operators hope to raise funds for a larger arena as well as a sensory trail course with multiple sights, sounds and touches for the riders.
There is a hydraulic lift, obtained with grant money, to assist in moving students from their wheelchairs onto the horses. For many autistic students, being placed on a horse and walked around produces a calming effect. Debbie mentioned one student, a paraplegic, whose ambition it is to compete in the equestrian events in the Para Olympics.
Both Debbie and Bobby are Certified Equine Assisted Training Specialists. Each had to go through an intensive training course, which focused on their individual skills as horse riders as well as their ability to teach. Each had to demonstrate proficiency in developing lesson plans and each had to pass multiple written examinations.
A place like Camelot has its share of expenses and Debbie is always looking for donations and bargains for things they need. She has found a local veterinarian whose fees are affordable, found a local farmer who grows and grinds his own grain for horse feed. Her biggest help has come in the form of a local grower who sells her hay at a discounted price. Previously, Debbie, her staff and volunteers would bale hay every summer.
For children who might not be able to afford the fee to attend the center, there is a Giddy-Up Grant they can apply for.
Winter is the slowest season. On average they work with between 20 and 25 students per week. In summer the numbers double, which is why Debbie relies so heavily on her volunteers.
Lessons are given in a once-a-week, six-week session. ''It is wonderful to see the rising self-esteem in these kids as they become more comfortable on a horse,'' Bobby said.
The Camelot Center is located at 3498 Barclay Messerly Road, Southington, 44470. Consider volunteering. For every 20 hours you donate, you will receive a half hour riding lesson.
For more info on this wonderful facility call, 330-889-0036 or email them at firstname.lastname@example.org
O'Connor is a Brookfield resident. Email her at email@example.com