Tall in the saddle

A Builders Club supports miniature horses used for therapy.

Story by Cindy Dashnaw

The elderly woman lying in bed didn’t move when the students walked in. The nursing home staff had explained that she usually was unresponsive. But these 11- and 12-year-olds from the Taylorville Junior High Builders Club in Illinois had brought a surprise: an American miniature therapy horse named Bailey.

At about 3 feet tall, the horse approached, its head even with the bed. Bailey gently nudged her long nose along the edge until her large, dark eyes were even with the woman’s face.

“Then she opened her eyes, and when she saw Bailey, she just came alive,” says Jacqueline Foil, the club’s sponsor. “It was one of the kids’ favorite visits.”

“The kids” were a group of 15 Builders Club members bringing homemade valentines, small horses and big hearts as part of a service partnership with Heartland Mini Hoofs. The club held fundraising events during the 2018-19 school year to help Heartland provide feed, hay, grooming items and veterinarian and farrier services. 

Andra Ebert, Heartland’s executive director, was more than willing to work with these students.

“It has been a wonderful experience,” she says. “My own grandson is in Builders Club. It’s taught him a great deal about compassion, about communication, about doing. He immediately sees the benefit people receive from him doing a service.”

The Taylorville club always focuses on just one service partner per school year so students can establish a connection with the organization, Foil says. She has been the club’s sponsor for 10 years, stepping in when its original teacher liaisons moved on to help other student groups. The club had 50 students then, but that number dropped the next year after Foil set standards for accountability: good grades, good behavior and meeting attendance. 

These rules made a difference in the kind of students who stay with the club. Students now aren’t necessarily sports-oriented or at the top of their class, but they want to help others.

“Our community is what you’d consider sort of impoverished, with 55 percent of students on free or reduced lunch,” Foil says. “So to see these kids get out there and fundraise is huge, because a lot of them are living below the standards of most other kids.”

In all, the club raised US$2,220 for Heartland during the school year. Besides crediting her students, Foil stresses the support she and the students always get from the Taylorville Kiwanis Club. (The club recognized Foil this year for her decade of service.)

“Our Kiwanis club didn’t just start the Builders Club and leave us hanging,” she says. “They’re there for us, and they’re great examples for the kids. I tell the kids they’ll go on to become Kiwanis club members one day.”

This story originally appeared in the December 2019 issue of Kiwanis magazine.

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