Where do families go when they are suddenly faced with a developmental disorder diagnosis? How can these families regain a sense of “normal” while desperately learning everything they can? Mariela Ticas and The Strange Kamelion Show visited an extraordinary therapy center in California that specializes in guiding families through these tough times. Below, Mariela talks about Special Spirits Ranch with an exclusive interview with the founder.
One of the fastest-growing developmental disorders in the United States is autism spectrum disorder (ASD). ASD is a range of conditions characterized by challenges with social skills, repetitive behaviors, speech and nonverbal communication. There is not one type of autism but many types, and the cause is still a debatable issue.
Recently, the Centers for Disease Control reported, “Nationally, 1 in 59 children had a diagnosis of autism spectrum disorder (ASD) by age 8 in 2014, a 15 percent increase over 2012.” According to Autism Speaks, on average autism will costs a family $60,000 a year! There is no medical detection or cure known for autism and ASD affects 1 in 37 boys.
Thankfully, there are safe havens like Special Spirits, a nonprofit organization for autistic children, to help ease the burden for some families. Special Spirits is a therapy horse ranch located a few miles north of Burbank, CA. Their mission is to provide children and adults with physical and cognitive challenges, horsemanship skills. The students learn will learn patience, problem solving skills and responsibility. The results are an increase in strength and self-esteem!
To learn more, The Strange Kamelion Show visited the ranch. We sat down with the founder, Eva Lund, and Cassie Hurlbut, one of their top certified training instructors.
Eva, to my understanding you got your start by leading special needs children into the arena as a way to get your own lessons in, is that right?
Yes, way back when; back home in Sweden, every riding center in Sweden had handicap riding as they call it then. As a means to earn extra lessons if we helped out in the lessons we earned points and for those we could use to get extra riding lessons for free. So it was very selfish of me at the time but the impact horses had on kids stayed with me for my entire life.
You grew a passion to help them?
Not then, that came later when I got this ranch in 2005, I started it as a boarding facility and a friend of mine, my neighbor, took me to the Devon Horse Show and we helped out and it reminded me of my childhood and all the kids that we were helping in our handicap lessons and Mary-Kate, my neighbor and I we started Special Spirits in end of 2007 and we got our nonprofit status in April of 2008.
How many children/people can you guesstimate have been helped?
Well, from our early beginnings we had one horse and three kids and then we’ve grown out to 50 to 55 kids every week. We also added programs such as equine-assisted psychotherapy for both foster kids and sober living and veterans.
I read that in Sweden almost every school has a place like this?
Every city has a riding center that also facilitates handicap riding, and it’s free its provided by the state. That’s my goal here too, to one day be able to offer it to all kids that need it without them having the burden of it.
It’s a nonprofit organization.
We’ve been nonprofit for ten years we still manage to keep our fees very low compared to lots of other centers, but we do rely on sponsorships for taking care of the horses. Horses are very expensive to keep. You know… It’s very labor intensive to do special needs riding lessons because of safety issues we have to have the instructor that teaches and people to help out to make sure the kids are safe.
For example, a program, how much would that cost the parents?
Each lesson costs about $50 and we do them in sessions. We have some money set aside for scholarships that they can apply for, but we still rely on donations from other sources. (Click here for donation information)
Now, Cassie, you’ve been here for how long?
I started volunteering here in 2014, after I left my old job. Then, by the end of that year, I was teaching some lessons and in 2015 I got my certification with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, and they can’t seem to get rid of me. [Laughs]
You’re in it for life now.
I’m in it for life.
Eva: We have kind of a joke that once you get through the gate, it’s like the roach motel. Once you check in, you don’t check out. [Laughs]
Cassie, how has this inspired you or changed you?
Oh, this has completely changed me in so many, so many ways. I think it’s increased my empathy ten fold. I used to always think that I was a very empathetic person, but I can feel that it’s grown since being here. I also think that I’ve learned patience….
For the full interview click here: Special Spirits Ranch Podcast Interview
It was also during our visit that we were able to chat with Gabe, one of the students at the ranch. He gave us a first eye look of life on the ranch in this cheeky candid tour. Gabe told us, “This place is for kids who are different from others. This is a place for kids like me that have disabilities and fall on the autism spectrum. This is a place where they feel normal and helps bring a smile to their face… Here, no one can judge them.“
Gabe has been attending Special Spirits for a little over 3 months. He loves to play chess and enjoys the board game Monopoly. He shared with us a brief description of his activities at the ranch, “I help these kids in lessons. I lead them. I sidewalk them.”
A father to a student named Charlie, added his experience in watching his son grow through the program: “[I see] Confidence. Definitely in his stability on his back. The way he stands, the way he holds himself. Very good body posture. It’s been excellent, and he also loves it! He’s happy – happier.”
Check out our video tour of Special Spirits Ranch!
Mariela Ticas lives in Los Angeles, CA. and is a regular contributor to ATRP. She is a podcast personality/co-host/blogger for “The Strange Kamelion Show” on iTunes and is an active member of Sag-Aftra as a performer. She has always been a writer at heart and got her start writing poetry as a teen. Mariela got her start in the entertainment industry back in 2012 and is now currently working on her first children’s book! On her downtime, she’s a volunteer member of the Motion Picture & Television Fund. You can follow Mariela on Instagram, or Twitter! Be sure to read her podcast blog, and scope her IMDb for upcoming features.
Stock Image from Unsplash / Daniel Cano.