Children and teenagers who run afoul of the law in the area now have a new opportunity for their mandatory restitution work. It involves getting acquainted with a 1,200-pound horse as a way of solving their issues while also getting to know and respect themselves and their peers.
"The kids we had that just graduated, when they started they wouldn't even give each other a second glance," said Heather Wilkerson, president of Hope-Thru-Horses. "It was all, 'Oh he's this, she's that,' all these labels. But by the end, they were friends."
Wilkerson's group is based in Robeson County but has just started a satellite program in southern Lee County, at Leaning Dogwood Farm off of Harvey Faulk Road. The farm's owner, Terri Dussault, ran a similar program about five years ago that had to be shut down because of county budget cuts. But now, thanks to aid from the Lee County Juvenile Crime Prevention Council, she's gearing her horses back up for another round.
Everyone in the program will be there because of either a court order or a referral from school for fighting, skipping or other behavioral issues. Antonio Chalmers, who works with Lee County youth in the criminal justice system, said he thinks this program will be good for them — even if it might take a little while.
"Not at first — there will be some issues," he said Wednesday, during a visit to the farm with 20 others involved in the program, when asked if he thought the typical teen he deals with would take to the program. "But over time, they'll get to know [the horses], just like it takes time with people."
The typical course will last around eight weeks, with three sessions per week.
Rose Moredock, a therapist with Hope-Thru-Horses, said she hopes the Lee County operation eventually grows to the size of their Robeson County one, which offers youth offender programs as well as counseling for individuals, groups, couples and trauma victims — generally soldiers or abused children.
But for now, she said, they'll be focusing solely on misbehaving youngsters here in groups and individual sessions.
It'll be a combination of good old manual labor — moving rocks, putting out seeds and more — along with problem-solving activities.
In those, she said, the counselors will assign tasks, like retrieving a horse and taking it for a walk, or getting the horses to go to specific spots and stay there, but the youth only receive minimal instruction. That way, she said, they're forced to think on their feet and will gradually become more confident and creative, while also staying safe around the large animals.
"There's no riding," she said. "It's all on the ground, to learn the skills they need ... like problem-solving, assertiveness, team work and empathy."
Chalmers, for one, said he likes the focus on building character instead of doling out punishment. Dussault added that by fostering empathy for the animals within the participants, the hope is they'll also learn to form better bonds with other people. Moredock said she has seen it in action.
"We had kids [sent to the program] for being in a fist fight with each other," she said. "And after the program ended, they were supporting each other."