Erica, Maguire Fellow in North Texas

Erica is a senior majoring in psychology and sociology in Dedman College of Humanities and Sciences. She was awarded a Maguire and Irby Family Foundation Public Service Fellowship for summer 2014 from the Cary M. Maguire Center for Ethics and Public Responsibility at SMU to intern at ManeGait Therapeutic Horsemanship in McKinney, Texas. Erica plans to focus on fundraising, grants and event planning, while also volunteering in the nonprofit’s lesson program.

Happy trails!

As school starts back up and my time as a ManeGait intern comes to a close, I can only describe myself as incredibly grateful for the experience I had this summer. I learned so much in the past few months, both inside and outside of the office. I don’t think an internship in any other context or at any other organization could have given me the unique opportunities and knowledge that I was able to gain at ManeGait.

Being able to participate in and see firsthand the inner workings of a nonprofit was a gift I will use for the rest of my career. After taking SMU’s first sociological course on nonprofits, this internship was the best way to put what I learned in the classroom to use in the real world. Although I still have a long way to go and a lot to learn, my time at ManeGait has provided me with invaluable real world experience.

I was drawn to ManeGait because of my love for horses and the personal healing experiences I’ve had with them in my own life. I figured that helping others experience healing through horses would be a good way to give back for all the times horses healed me. I did not realize, however, that being at ManeGait would be just as therapeutic for myself as it is for the riders. If somebody had asked me as a little girl what my ideal job would be, I would have probably described one where I can ride horses every day. By some miracle, that dream came true this summer. Waking up at 5:30 every morning to beat traffic and get out to the barn and ride before work was an amazingly therapeutic way to start my days. As classes start, something tells me that I won’t be popping out of bed for my morning classes quite as enthusiastically as I did all summer!

Working with the riders was by far the most therapeutic aspect of this summer. Going into my internship with relatively little experience interacting with people with disabilities, I could not have predicted how passionate I would become about ManeGait’s program and mission. I found that when I was volunteering in lessons, it was impossible to feel sorry for myself or mope about having a bad day. Despite the unique hardships faced by each rider, the barn and arena are constantly flooded with optimism and happiness from riders, volunteers and staff, and it’s absolutely contagious. The dedication we all share for the riders and horses out at ManeGait pulls us all together into a community that I feel privileged to be a part of.

In case you all read this, thank you so much to everyone at ManeGait who made this summer so educational, fun, and above all meaningful. I know how many of you went out of your way to make me feel welcome and appreciated, and I could not be more thankful. See you all around the ‘Gait!

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It’s August?

I blinked, and suddenly less than a month remains before my internship at ManeGait ends and I start my senior year at SMU. I’m already feeling a bit anxious about the transition, mainly because I know that come late August, I’ll no longer be waking up every morning to go visit my own little slice of equine heaven. Luckily, the ManeGait family has reassured me that I can still come back anytime I need that peaceful retreat.

The past two months of my internship were split up into two very different types of experiences. During the first half of my internship, riding lessons were in session. This is why my last entry was so heavily focused on the amazing experience of volunteering and working with the riders out at ManeGait. Without even knowing it, I fell right into the pattern that the rest of the ManeGait volunteers and staff have adopted. When lessons are in session, it’s all about the kids. Of course, while everyone is still doing what’s necessary to keep the business side of the nonprofit running smoothly, it is certainly not the main focus.

It is difficult to put into words the level of dedication I’ve seen from the staff and volunteers when it comes to the riders. No matter their job description, almost anything can be set down if a rider is in need. Many days, if a volunteer can’t make it to a lesson for some reason, our volunteer coordinator calls upon staff members to set down their work and go out to volunteer in the lesson. Without enough volunteers, our riders can’t take lessons, and nobody at ManeGait will stand for that.

The second ‘phase’ of my internship began when the summer lesson session ended, a transition accompanied by a total shift in the atmosphere at ManeGait. When the riders are on break, we get down to business. Although it may not be as fun as getting to participate in lessons and bond with the riders, the work that I’ve been doing behind-the-scenes is just as rewarding.

Everything I’ve been working on, such as donor relations, gathering auction items for our upcoming gala, writing and editing grants, PR efforts, database and website updates, etc., has not only given me valuable experience in the independent sector, but also has allowed me to contribute to the organization in a whole new way. The people I work with have shown the same amounts of teamwork and camaraderie in the business side of the nonprofit as when we are out at the barn with the riders, all because of the overarching dedication to the ManeGait mission that we all share.

I can’t wait to see what this last month has in store for me. We are fast approaching the biggest fundraiser of the year, Gala at the ‘Gait, and everyone is kicking it into overdrive as we send out invitations, make facilities arrangements, plan for the food, entertainment, and décor, etc. Although there is a lot of anxiety surrounding the Gala, it stems from the underlying desire to execute a perfect event and raise money for the further development of the program. I feel so lucky to be able to see every side of this fantastic nonprofit, and will continue to absorb everything I possibly can before I have to say goodbye for now.

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Horses, healing and high-fives

My first two weeks at ManeGait have flown by, and I can’t wait to get back to work next week. Being at the ‘Gait is truly a therapeutic experience in and of itself, for a number of reasons.

Out there, the sense of community is so strong and vibrant that I couldn’t help but feel welcome and at home. Even though the lesson program has over 150 riders and 350 volunteers a week, everybody knows and genuinely cares about one another. No matter what you’re working on, there is always somebody ready to lend a helping hand. Working in this kind of environment makes it impossible to be in a bad mood, no matter what kind of stress you’re dealing with at the moment.

While volunteering in the lesson program, I was able to talk to some of the riders and their families, and was surprised by what a deep sense of connection I felt to their individual stories. Some parents talked to me about how their child’s first words, first steps, and first smiles took place out at ManeGait. Although I understood the mechanisms behind the first steps (the movement of the therapy horse beneath the rider mimics the movement of walking and strengthens the rider’s core muscles), it took my being down at the barn among the riders to understand how the horses bring them out of their shell, give them a sense of responsibility, and make them want to reach out to those around them.

In just three weeks of volunteering in the ManeGait lesson program, I’ve seen enormous improvements in the riders I’ve been working with. During his first riding lesson, one of my riders became so frustrated that he tried yanking at the horse’s mane and ended up getting off because he could not stop crying. By lesson number three, he was laughing throughout the whole lesson, petting his horse respectfully when he dismounted, making clear efforts to follow instruction and improve his riding skills, and giving me an enthusiastic high-five before we parted ways at the end of the day! I feel so incredibly honored to be a part of this transition, and can’t believe how very proud I am of this rider for his success.

In lessons, I’m not simply a volunteer there to make sure the rider doesn’t fall off their horse. I am, without actively trying to be, invested in the rider’s success and happiness. I’m cheerleading, high-fiving, and I feel overwhelmingly thrilled when a lesson goes well. I came into the program thinking that a person’s disabilities would be an obstacle to their horseback riding experience, but I’m already learning that disabilities don’t matter out there. It didn’t take two minutes of talking with my riders before I quit thinking about their disabilities and started seeing their personalities, quirks, and spirits.

Even if a rider cannot yet walk or talk, they are treated by the entire community as perfectly capable of riding and caring for their horse. As such, there are high expectations for each rider, no matter their disability. It is amazing to see how quickly they grow into their roles as horse-brusher, saddle-carrier, carrot-feeder, and horseback rider.

On top of all this, I get the privilege of being a Marketing intern too! Although things in the marketing and development office are removed one degree from the actual nitty-gritty taking place 50 yards away at the barn, it is still incredibly exciting to be a part of what keeps the organization funded and growing.

In the past two weeks, I worked on sending out requests for in-kind auction donations for an event coming up in a few months, and got to spend time editing a grant which seeks funding for a major fencing project on the property. It did not take long for me to get comfortable asking for things from past and potential donors, perhaps because I’m asking on behalf of a cause I am now so passionate about. I’m already starting to see how much time and effort goes into nonprofit development, largely because of how many tasks fall under the job description.

At a smaller nonprofit like ManeGait, there are only two or three people who handle the grantwriting, the donor relations, the event planning and execution, the marketing, the community outreach, etc. Even though it will be a major undertaking, I feel so lucky to have the opportunity to get to experience and participate in each of these tasks. My goal for this internship is to learn as much as I can about every aspect of running a nonprofit, and this is the place to be to do just that.

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