A universal truth is that girls love animals. So when the girls from Orange County Troop 871 brainstormed ideas for their next service project, their leaders, Trish Anastos and Lori Miskell, knew the project must involve helping cute, cuddly animals with big brown eyes.
Nearly 200 hours and several badges later, these 10 fifth-grade girls from Newport Beach, Corona del Mar, Newport Coast, Irvine and Huntington Beach earned the Girl Scout Bronze Award after completing a project that could be considered a trifecta of service: Scouts support a therapeutic riding center, the riding center rescues horses with big brown eyes, and the horses provide a means for therapy for developmentally disabled children and adults.
The troop approached the Back Bay Therapeutic Riding Club (BBTRC), a little known nonprofit on one of the few equestrian-zoned properties in Newport Beach. Owned and operated by Jeff and Bernadette Olsen, the BBTRC has been providing therapeutic riding services for almost five years.
The BBTRC was delighted to receive an offer of help from the Scouts, even if they were only 11 years old. While the girls were initially moved by the stories of the horses — many of whom had been rescued from ill-fated destinies — they were even more inspired by the role these horses play in helping children with disabilities.
As part of a needs assessment for their project, Bernadette Olsen, a certified Advanced Therapeutic Riding instructor, taught the Scouts about the goals of therapeutic riding, and how it can benefit children with special needs, including kids afflicted with cerebral palsy and autism.
Olsen explained that many of the children are wheelchair-bound, or lack the strength for sitting upright or walking. Riding a horse can help develop the "core" muscles that support posture and breathing. She also explained that while a student is on a horse, he or she might be encouraged to reach out for a toy as a way of developing strength and fine motor skills.
This helped the Girl Scouts identify areas where they could be of help. The Girl Scouts decided to make toys for the club. They spent a weekend working like Santa's elves. They drew their own patterns and sewed toys, using textured fabrics and stuffing them with a variety of materials, including scented cinnamon sticks for a multi-sensory experience.
Already in use at the BBTRC, "the toys have been much more motivating for the young students than traditional rings and other materials we pull from the tack room to be used in therapy," Olsen said.
The troop also purchased an encased bulletin board for the BBRTC, after raising $500 through cookie sales.
"Our troop spent many weekends selling Girl Scout cookies, and it was very rewarding for the girls to get to purchase this bulletin board for the riding center," said Lori Miskell, co-leader, service unit co-manager, treasurer and cookie sales manager for one service unit of the Girl Scouts of Orange County.
Keeping it all in the family, her husband, George, installed the board.
The troop leaders included the girls in the process of searching for and selecting a motivating Bronze Award project, and felt strongly about finding a service opportunity that got the girls closer to the recipients of their good works.
"For young girls, there are few service opportunities which allow children to see how their fundraising or service projects get applied. There are laws and liability issues around every corner," said leader Trish Anastos, who has also supported OC Boy Scouts as a den leader and merit badge counselor.
The leaders felt that the BBTRC was the perfect place for the girls to do community service, with Bernadette Olsen being such a good role model for the girls. Earning the Bronze Award was a great accomplishment for the girls, but learning that they can make a difference in the community was even more powerful, especially when they were able to help other children — and cute animals, of course.
Contact the Back Bay Therapeutic Riding Center to see how you can help at http://www.BackBayTRC.org.
SARAH L. DRISLANE is the mother of a member of Orange County Girl Scout Troop 871.