'H' factor fuels charity
CHRISTY SWIFTIt seems like Joy Ongley was born for her job at Heartland Horses and Handicapped in Avon Park. It's one of those situations where the whole is more than the sum of its parts.
Published: June 27, 2012
Published: June 27, 2012
Her official job title is "stable manager," but the job description goes way beyond that.
"I'm the person who is in charge of making sure all the animals are taken care of; in charge of introducing new clients to the program; record-keeping; and taking care of the volunteers," Ongley explained.
She's basically the boss, but she doesn't like that title.
"I am kind of their guide," she said of the 56 volunteers she manages.
During the summer she has about 13 regular volunteers who come to help disabled adults and children ride horses for therapy and fun, and she's always looking for more helpers.
Heartland Horses and Handicapped was launched in 1998 by Sandy Kuhn, who "believed that by using horses to challenge perceived limitations of children and adults with disabilities that they would learn and grow, therefore improving their lives tremendously," as expressed on the organization's website.
Ongley began volunteering in 2004 when she moved to the area from Pennsylvania. She'd grown up on a farm and had horses of her own but wasn't able to bring them down with her.
"I was missing them terribly," said Ongley.
When she spied an ad in the newspaper asking for volunteers for HHH, she jumped on it.
Her dedication and enthusiasm were quickly recognized by Kuhn, who hired her. In 2005, Ongley became stable manager.
"She really liked how I handled things, and I was here every day that I needed to be here," Ongley stated.
Kuhn died suddenly in 2007 at the age of 66. The loss hit Ongley hard and still strikes an emotional chord when she talks about the woman she admired so much.
"It was devastating when she passed away," recalled Ongley. "She just wanted me to promise that on her passing I'd try everything I could to keep this place going, and that's what I've done."
It's not an easy task. Heartland Horses and Handicapped runs strictly on donations and funds it raises by providing riding lessons for the general public, birthday parties and other events.
Ongley is a certified riding instructor with the Certified Horsemanship Association and puts a heavy focus on safety for both her clients and volunteers. The organization currently provides free horseback riding therapy to more than 100 physically or mentally disabled adults, youths and children. A new program will introduce about 50 more.
"Studies have shown that for the disabled to ride horses is helpful, whether it helps them mentally, physically or emotionally. That's what we're here to do," said Ongley, who has a technician's degree in orthotics and prosthetics.
She also worked in a shelter workshop for the disabled in Pennsylvania, helping workers to do simple, specific jobs to help them earn some money.
She said the autistic children who come to ride often show marked improvement after participating on a weekly basis.
"It helps them just kind of calm down," she remarked.
It's fitting that Ongley gets to combine her love of horses and her love of helping others at her job.
"It's my nature. I love to help people whether they are disabled or not," she said.
"I like to make kids happy."
For additional information on the operation, visit www.heartlandhorses.org.