Neva A. Graham, M.P.A.
For as long as Neva A. Graham, M.P.A. can remember, horses have always been an integral part of her life.
“The earliest memory I have with a horse is when I was about five years old; but if you ask my dad, he’ll tell you I started riding at the age of two,” says Graham, director of major gifts for Saint Joseph’s Kinney Center for Autism Education and Support.
Over the years, her family helped bring horses to the lives of other people, through hosting birthday parties, trail riding sessions and rodeos on their family farm. But in high school, her father suggested hosting a new activity — therapeutic riding to help children with special health care needs.
Graham, her father and a handful of certified volunteers partnered with Special Olympics to offer this activity to select children. The partnership focuses on children from five to 21 years of age and grew from once a year to twice a year, and occasionally involves private lessons.
Therapeutic riding helps improve motor skills, teach responsibilities and instills confidence in the young participants. The lessons include basic riding groundwork, brushing the horses, learning how to dismount from the saddle, riding the trails and giving the horses treats at the end, which is many participants’ favorite part.
“The emotional benefits are an essential of this experience,” says Graham. “The horses and activities we do together help the children feel comfortable, confident and able.”
She explains how the horses have exceptional temperament with the participants and their natural labor of love is a key element of the therapeutic process.
“Our horses have the beautiful ability to be in tune with our clients,” she says. “It’s amazing how they can change their personality to match the sensitivity needs of each individual child.”
Graham’s volunteer work in therapeutic riding also inspired her to start working in her role with the Kinney Center, whose mission is to improve the lives of individuals and families affected by autism and training compassionate autism professionals of tomorrow.
“It is a way for me to help those I provide therapeutic riding lessons to, and so many more, by helping a center that helps children and their families realize their dreams,” says Graham.
Therapeutic riding for Graham and her team is their way of giving back to the community and is not meant to be a business. But, Graham isn’t completely ruling out a retirement dream of turning this passion into a non-profit dedicated to helping others.
“Our horses have formed meaningful bonds with so many individuals and have allowed us to as well,” she says. “As long as I own horses, I plan to continue our services.”
Gabrielle Lacherza is public relations and communications specialist at Saint Joseph’s. Illustration by Lisa Chicchi