Five years ago, I began working at a summer camp for kids with disabilities and illnesses. A close friend and myself have run the horseback-riding program at this camp for the past four years, and I can honestly say it has been one of the most rewarding experiences in my life thus far. To see a child with a terminal illness or disability of another sort climb aboard a half-ton animal and face the world with no fears or preoccupations is not only therapeutic for that child, but also for the handler who is lucky enough to be part of that experience, also. This, I believe.
Camp Carefree is a non-profit organization that allows its campers to stay for a week at a time free of charge. With weeks assigned to certain illnesses such as cancer, epilepsy, hemophilia, and spina-bifida, the campers that attend are given the opportunity to be around other kids that are just like them and who face the same obstacles every day of their lives. These kids thrive off of each other and the chance they are given to do all the same activities that healthy kids are able to do without recognition of their advantages, including the time they get to spend around the camp’s horses. The effect these animals have is utterly amazing to me- I’ve seen kids smile who have kept somber faces since the minute they’ve arrived at camp; I’ve heard kids ramble after staying silent for the whole duration of the day, based solely on the short amount of time they get to spend being around the horses. It is so empowering for them to be in control of such a large animal when half of them are not even capable of being in control of their own bodies. One of our spina-bifida campers, Billy, used to have a tremendous fear of horses. We for the longest time could not even get him to come up and pet one of them without having a nervous breakdown. After days of one-on-one work, we finally got Billy up on one of the horses. After that first ride, Billy rode every single day for the rest of the week. He also began participating in the other activities that he had been refusing to do. He gained so much confidence in himself that he was an entirely different camper from that day on.
Many of the kids can relate with our horses because they have had to overcome obstacles themselves. We have horses that have come to us very sick or very abused, but recovered fully and are now happy. Hearing their stories and seeing them happy with their lives has helped many of the kids find contentment with themselves. Being a small part of these children’s lives and getting the opportunity to see them so happy in a world where they are taught that they are so different from everyone else is an incredibly humbling experience, but more rewarding than anything else I have ever been exposed to. These kids are stronger than certain adults I’ve met, and I only hope that one day I can have a similar outlook on life like they have.
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