Creating SMILES: Darien's therapeutic riding center needs volunteers

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Anna Marie Lux
Wednesday, March 26, 2014

DARIEN—Mary Reich wanted a chance to be around horses and to do important volunteer work.

Nancy Daily wanted to give her time in a way that has a real impact on people's lives.

Both found their way to SMILES, a therapeutic riding center in rural Darien.

Today, the Walworth County women look forward to another season at SMILES, which stands for Special Methods in Learning Equine Skills.

The nonprofit facility has about 100 riders per week and needs more volunteers like Reich and Daily for its spring session, which begins March 31.

You don't need any prior experience with horses to volunteer at SMILES, said Katie Luessenhop, volunteer coordinator.

“The training experience is so extensive that people get comfortable with horses,” she said. “People learn how to groom and saddle horses as well as how to walk and guide them.”

She asks volunteers to commit to a specific amount of time, so they can be paired with the same horse and same client.

“A lot of people develop relationships with their clients,” Luessenhop said.

In addition to helping others, she said, volunteering at SMILES is a good way to:

-- Get exercise. Walking during one class a week is equivalent to walking about a mile and will burn more than 400 calories per class. The reaching, bending and stretching from grooming horses will trim the waist line.

-- Meet new people and form new friendships.

Reich has volunteered at SMILES for about six years. In her previous job as a school business manager, she knew several students who had taken part in the SMILES program.

“One of the things that attracted me to it was that I thought it would be a good way to get more accustomed to horses,” Reich said. “Not only could I work with the animals, but I also could do a good service by working with students and adults with disabilities.”

Daily had heard of SMILES through the years and thought it was a worthwhile organization. Combined with her love of horses, she felt she would be right at home when she began volunteering three years ago.

The experience impacted her life more than she imagined.

After volunteering at SMILES, Daily decided to change jobs. She now works at VIP Services, Elkhorn, as a job developer for adults with disabilities.

“SMILES was a great confirmation of where I wanted to go,” Daily said. “I wanted to do something I felt good about.”

Both women were paired at SMILES to work with young Emma Caputo.

“She just lit up every time we trotted with the horse,” Daily said. “Her mother told us the girl was making good progress at home because of riding on the horse.”

Both Daily and Reich enjoy giving to others.

“But you don't realize what you get back in return,” Daily said. “It can be equal to or more than what you give. It definitely is a two-way street.”

Anna Marie Lux is a columnist for The Gazette. Her columns run Sundays, Tuesdays and Thursdays. Call her with ideas or comments at 608-755-8264, or email amarielux@gazettextra.com.

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