There’s something elegant about watching Harry Swimmer slowly lead a child up the 25-foot wooden ramp and onto the back of a horse.
Maybe it’s his slow, deliberate shuffle, or the air of grandfatherly kindness the scene evokes, or the way the fading, late-afternoon sun casts the pair into silhouettes. But what happens once that kid is in the saddle, says the 87-year-old farm owner – that’s the sight that matters.
“Now, what happens? They’re looking down at you, instead of up at you,” he says. And when they’re on a horse, he specifies, they look like everybody else on a horse.
That’s been Swimmer’s vision for almost a quarter-century: to help kids with special needs not only look, but – much more importantly – feel like everybody else. He’s done it through a therapeutic riding program called Mitey Riders, which he founded with his wife, Marilyn, 23 years ago at their Misty Meadows Farm, out Providence Road South near Waxhaw.
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Today, a staff of seven and about 200 volunteers hold more than a dozen classes a week for children who are 5 to 17 and have a range of disabilities, autism to cerebral palsy to Down syndrome. More than 60 families are involved, and none of them pays a nickel.
While similar equine therapy classes can cost upwards of $125 an hour, Swimmer has managed to keep Mitey Riders free of charge, thanks to his corps of volunteers and a host of generous donors. Many of those write big checks, sponsoring of an annual charity golf tournament that is the nonprofit’s sole fundraiser.
The easiest way to see the value of the program? Talk to parents of participants. Or better yet, just watch the faces of these kids when they climb out of the car and see Swimmer, or when they mount up.
“What do you say? Huh? You ready? You wanna ride Pepper?” Swimmer says, as he crouches down next to Alex Crisp in his wheelchair. Pepper, a Connemara gelding, is being saddled up a few feet away. And Alex is beaming so broadly it looks like he might burst.
“He loves it here,” says his mom, Kathy Crisp, who’s been bringing Alex to Mitey Riders for nine years. “We turn the corner (into the Misty Meadows driveway), and he starts squealing.”
Alex has mitochondrial disease – he’s never been able to walk or talk, or sit up on his own. A couple of years ago he had a massive stroke. He’s had a long string of absences from Mitey Riders recently because of a 72-day stay at Levine Children’s Hospital.
“He was a pretty sick kid,” Kathy Crisp says, “and we didn’t think he was gonna be able to come out and ride again. We didn’t think we were gonna make it out of the hospital, to be honest.
“So getting back out here is just...” She pauses. “It’s what we needed. He gets on that horse and everything disappears. Problems breathing, the tubes – everything.”
Finding his calling
For much of his life, Harry Swimmer was an insurance man.
He graduated from Penn State’s business school at 21, briefly worked at a life insurance agency in Philadelphia, then moved to Charlotte in 1951 and opened the Swimmer Insurance Agency at 23. He dabbled briefly as a commercial builder, but decided to start buying land for himself to the south of Charlotte in the late 1960s.
Swimmer started with 20 acres. He wound up with the 83 that comprise Misty Meadows after a close friend of Marilyn’s died, leaving Harry right of first refusal on his land.
The Swimmers built a tiny cottage near the front of the plot in the ’70s. They lived in Charlotte at the time, but eventually constructed a house on the farm farther back from the road, and sold their place in the city to give the country a go.
It suited them. Marilyn had owned a horse for years before the couple had even conceived of Misty Meadows, and showed horses. After they moved onto the farm, she began boarding them – as many as 40 at once.
Then, one day back in the early ’90s, came the aha moment.
I took Stacy out of her chair, put her on the horse, and her face – it just transformed her face. It was an amazing thing to me. And I said, ‘Gosh, there must be something to this.’
Walking along the sidewalk of a shopping center, Swimmer bumped into a woman he knew. The woman had her two grandchildren, Jessica and Stacy Marx, with her. One was in a wheelchair.
“I kept looking at Stacy,” Swimmer recalls. “She’s got cerebral palsy. Totally deaf, couldn’t communicate, unable to walk, blind in one eye ... and I said, ‘I wonder what she would be like if we put her on a horse.’ She said, ‘I don’t know.’ I said, ‘Well, how ’bout coming out tomorrow and let’s see?’
“She came out the next day, I took Stacy out of her chair, put her on the horse, and her face – it just transformed her face. It was an amazing thing to me. And I said, ‘Gosh, there must be something to this.’ ”
After doing some research, he learned that equine therapy was actually a thing. More research turned up an equine science program at his alma mater.
So back to the classroom he went.
Swimmer wasn’t yet fully retired from the business he’d founded (one of his two sons runs it now), but from the day he met Stacy on the sidewalk, he had a new calling. It would define the later chapters of his life and change the lives of hundreds of children with special needs.
“What he does for these kids is selfless,” says Natalie Kinsey, parent of another Mitey Rider. “I mean, this is his home. He donates his home to all of us in the community. That’s a big undertaking, having all these cars here and all these different people here all week.
“And he’s here every week. I don’t think I’ve ever not seen him on a day that William rides. Never. He doesn’t miss a day. He’s always out here smiling, giving the kids hugs. You can tell he truly is passionate about what he does. ... He’s a total hero.”
‘Vote for Harry!’
If you don’t want to take her word for that, maybe you’ll take CNN’s.
The news network will celebrate him and nine other charitable-minded souls in its 10th annual “CNN Heroes: An All-Star Tribute” special, hosted by Anderson Cooper and Kelly Ripa, airing live from New York City at 8 p.m. Dec. 11.
Swimmer will be awarded $10,000. If it turns out that he received the most votes among those 10 finalists – voting, at CNNHeroes.com, goes through 8:59 p.m. Dec. 6 (so West Coast voters can stop at midnight, rather than 3 a.m.) – Mitey Riders will land an additional $100,000.
To be his age, where people are usually slowing down, and he just digs his heels in and gets it done. He never complains ... Who at this age would do this? It’s incredible. It’s
Mitey Riders parent Laine Walter
So it’s still campaign season out at Misty Meadows. Parents and staffers have staked a sign they keep updating that says how many days are left in the voting period. ( Red-white-and-blue postcards that read “Vote For Harry!” are being handed out like free peanuts. And parents excitedly tell Swimmer over and over again how many people they’ve recruited to vote on his behalf.
At 87, he is far and away the oldest in this crop of extraordinary humanitarians, and one does have to wonder: How does he do it? Just showing up for work every day is one thing. It’s another entirely to be as attentive and enthusiastic around the kids as he is, and to walk them up that ramp and set them on that horse.
“To be his age, where people are usually slowing down, and he just digs his heels in and gets it done,” says Mitey Riders parent Laine Walter. “He never complains about aches or pains. Who at this age would do this? Day after day, morning, noon and night, cut your own grass, continue to engage with the kids, not even pause to think about sitting down. It’s incredible. It’s incredible.”
Walter’s daughter, Denni, has extra material on the end of her fourth chromosome. That leads to tendencies that resemble autism, Down syndrome and fragile X syndrome. Denni has been coming to the farm for 18 years, and at 28 is technically more than a decade too old for the program. But she wanted to keep riding, and Swimmer didn’t have the heart to turn her down, so, well – here she is.
As for the therapeutic benefits, they are many, parents say. Consider Natalie Kinsey’s 9-year-old son William, who has Down syndrome.
“Since he started riding here, his posture’s better,” she says. “Children with Down syndrome are low (muscle) tone, and since he started riding here, his tone has gotten better. Also, he was born with torticollis, where you kind of have a head tilt. We had tried all sorts of different therapies, and the horse riding took care of it, because he has to balance and he’s gotta hold himself upright. Every part of him is better since we’ve come here.”
It’s also a place where William can come and no one will look at him funny.
“These are his friends,” Natalie Kinsey says. “There may be times where he doesn’t really feel part of a group, or he may feel isolated. But he comes here and ... it’s just, these are his peeps.”
‘I ain’t going no place’
Swimmer, not surprisingly, wants to make sure those peeps are there for William – and for all the Mitey Riders – for decades to come. To ensure his legacy, he’s set up an endowment fund that will help the program continue after he’s gone and has specified that Misty Meadows is to remain in his family and at the service of it.
But don’t count him out anytime soon. “I’ve got a contract to live to a hundred,” he says, laughing. “I ain’t going no place.
“If somebody said to me that I could go sit on a beach someplace with a drink in my hand, or swimming in the ocean ...” Swimmer’s voice trails off. He looks down the hill and watches Alex Crisp – the boy who’s never been able to walk, or talk, or sit up on his own – smiling away on Pepper’s back.
“I mean, I couldn’t think of anyplace in the world that I would rather be than right here working with these children. And I know that, at 87 years old, I’m on the other side of midnight. But this is where I want to be.”