Samantha and Fiesta share a conversation. Photo by Susan Lerner.
Equestrians know Wellington, Florida as a toney horse-friendly retreat with a winter-full of fabulous competition. But, like many communities in the United States, Wellington’s gilded exterior hides a lot of sorrow for children who live with parents addicted to alcohol or drugs. Nationwide hundreds of thousands of children are living in households with one or more drug-or-alcohol-addicted parent. The problem doesn’t recognize economic or social boundaries. It flows like water. Too frequently, it drowns the children.
In 2009 equestrian Lizabeth Olszewski created a unique organization dedicated to helping children in these complicated home situations overcome the fear, loneliness and hopelessness that too often circumscribe their lives. A survivor of a childhood in a turbulent alcoholic home, Olszewski recognized the profound impact of mentors and horses in her own life. These were precious gifts that she is proudly paying forward. Horses Healing Hearts is her answer to anyone who wants to know how to help children raised with addiction in their homes.
Equestrian Lisa Jacquin, who spends part of the year teaching and training in Coatesville, PA, and the balance of the year in Wellington, says she was looking for a way to give something back. “Now that we’re spending so much time in Florida I wanted to find something that works for me and some way I could be helpful. My mother was very involved in different charities,” she says. “I’m involved with Special Olympics and other organizations, and it’s been very fulfilling for me.”
She called Olszewski when she heard about Horses Healing Hearts. “I sat with her last fall and saw how the program works and kind of jumped on board to help with programs with some ideas about how to raise money so they can offer their programs to more kids.” She says they use several different barns in the Wellington area, and don’t have their own dedicated facility. “There’s talk about getting their own facility and making it a bigger thing. As we all know with those kinds of facilities it’s the cost of the animals and taking care of them that really adds up.”
She said that at a recent board meeting someone presented statistics about the number of children that could potentially be helped by the group’s programs. The statistics stunned her. “We all know there are a lot of children out there who are homeless, but there are so many who are in homes with alcoholism; and the numbers of parental suicides, it was mind-boggling to me. This is a small area—we’re not even talking country-wide.”
Learning Trust with Brushes and Carrots
Jacquin is a decorated, accomplished rider who has competed and won internationally. She was on the US Show Jumping team that won the Silver Medal at the 1987 Pan American Games. She has won numerous Grand Prix events and was on the silver-medal US Olympic team in Seoul in 1988. Her resume as a rider and trainer are impeccable. She developed one of the most successful partnerships in show jumping when she purchased a former racehorse named For the Moment. His performance on the track was unimpressive, but she opened his eyes to a sport that he embraced wholeheartedly.
“He was kind of a diamond in the rough. He was a top level horse, an exceptional animal,” she says. He was pretty single-minded, but with time and perseverance, she says he turned out to be a great horse. “He had a super career and was a very healthy horse; I retired him at 24 years old, and he was still winning everything.”
She doesn’t like to compare humans to animals. But she understands the importance of trust in every endeavor. “A lot of these kids’ parents are just not well—there have been suicides.” She tries to imagine how a kid processes these tragic events, and learns that the world has good possibilities for them. The Horses Healing Hearts programs give kids important tools to help them move forward with their own lives. “This is something they can trust and hold onto. That unconditional love from our animals.”
She says that the transformations for these kids are heart-warming and humbling. “It’s a safe place for them, and they can relate to the horses whether it’s talking to them, brushing them, or just giving them carrots. What they see is sincerity in the animals. When children have not had the best surroundings, the animal is comforting to them. They open up and build a little trust.”
When she talks to some of the kids in the program, she understands how powerful the interaction between horses and kids can be. “One girl told me that Friday is her favorite day, because she knows that Saturday is the day she will be with the horses. It gives her one day in her week when she has something happy to look forward to.”
Talk to the Animals
Jacquin says that Horses Healing Hearts offers kids an array of activities, and they have counselors available who can talk to the kids and help them develop strategies to deal with the stress in their lives. Some of the kids ride; some are content to brush the horses and talk to them.
One of the goals of Horses Healing Hearts is to help children of alcoholic or addicted parents understand that their parents’ addictions—and the behaviors that result from those addictions—are their parents’ responsibilities. The children are not the cause of the problems. It’s especially hard for kids who have lost parents through overdose or homicide or suicide to sort out these profoundly complicated and tragic realities.
It can be heartbreaking to watch some of the children finally open up by talking to the horses. “These kids are going through hard times. For them, this is a very bright thing in their lives.” Jacquin says the horses and the programs help these wounded children see that there is a better road, and there are people out there who are going to help them.
While there are nominal fees for some of the programs, no child is turned away because a family cannot pay. While there are literally thousands of kids who are in homes where addiction is a problem, Horses Healing Hearts can’t help them all. “On any given day or weekend they have 30 to 60 kids.” They use an interview process and information on the program application to pick the kids who are in most need of the program.
“Some of these children are in different situations. All we can do is try to give them something to look forward to every weekend. It puts them in a safe environment with people who care and animals that become part of their lives.”
A Unique Program
There are no other programs like Horses Healing Hearts. Wellington proved to be fertile ground to plant this unique venture. The area draws thousands of equestrians annually for the Winter Equestrian Festival. And Florida has numerous year-round horse farms. Olszewski has succeeded in recruiting some of the country’s top equestrians to help her organization succeed. The organization’s website, www.horseshealingheartsusa.com lists the ways people can help.