After seeing the benefits that horseback riding therapy provided for her son, who had an intrauterine stroke that left him paralyzed on one side, Christine Cronin founded Wings of Eagles Ranch of Concord in 1999.
“Sixteen years later, we are still going strong,” said Cronin. “We have more programs and more kids.”
Cronin said that about half of her operating costs come from fees and fundraisers, leaving her to solicit money from businesses and apply for government grants to make ends meet.
She is grateful for the help throughout the years, but “I need volunteers, golfers and donors,” she said, referring to The Bob Cronin Memorial Golf Tournament, in honor of her late husband, which will be held Nov. 2.
On a recent Thursday, Cronin was helping Evan Spickard, 7, mount the horse named Parker, using the newly purchased Sure Hands Transfer Lift that was made possible by a $9,324 grant from the Christopher and Dana Reeve Foundation. The lift eliminates the struggle to put the children, who may be making sporadic movements, in the saddle, “and my back is very happy,” said Cronin.
Evan has sensory processing disorder and was participating in one of the therapy riding sessions that serves 50 children a week at the ranch.
Each child requires at least three volunteers – one to lead the horse and two to walk on either side to ensure that the rider stays in the saddle. Children with less body control will also require a back rider, someone who rides behind them in the saddle, to help them stay in place.
To accomplish this requires a lot of volunteers – 25 each day for riding, with the most, 300 volunteers, being needed when they serve 300 children during the summer camps. Cronin has a list of 600 volunteers that she rotates through the ranch, each having received the training needed to work with the children.
Charlotte resident Kristi Gouch has been bringing her son Jonathan Gouch, 16, who has Down syndrome, for riding therapy the past six years and said she couldn’t think of life without the ranch. “Chris is amazing at working with these kids. She is firm with them, but they know that she loves them,” she said.
“It is a safe place for him. She has a huge heart for these kids, and it shows,” said Gouch.
Focusing on what the children can do, not on what they can’t, the ranch has grown into a therapeutic horseback riding and outdoor adventure center for children with special needs. Adding five high rope courses, a low rope course, fitness trail, canoeing and rock wall for the summer camps has also led to other opportunities.
Cronin’s son, Brendan, 27, went on to learn how to ride a bike, paddle a canoe and is now working full-time with a local landscape company while serving as an inspiration to the children who come to the ranch.
Tienka Watkins’ son, Giovanni, 10, who has cerebral palsy and other health issues, is paralyzed on one side like Brendan. “When Giovanni saw Brendan paddle that canoe with one hand, he knew he could do it, and he did,” said Watkins. “They have helped him conquer his fears. He climbed the rock wall all the way to the top this summer, even in the rain,” she said.
Hosting additional field trips for the area school children with special needs, Cronin decided to add at-risk youth to the mix. Working with the Urban Youth Enrichment program at the cfa Academy for the past four years, the ranch hosts a two-day camp for at-risk youth each summer.
Recently, Cronin was approached by two local groups to work with the victims of human trafficking, and the ranch hosted a couple of visits this year. Though each person who comes to the ranch may have different needs and struggles, they can benefit from the feeling of accomplishment achieved by the work done there.
Most parents agree that the horse-riding sessions help their children build core strength while working on their social skills in a safe, accepting manner. Cronin believes that they get even more than that, as she saw with her own son.
“The self-esteem comes from this. If they don’t have self-esteem, they will have a tough time in this world,” said Cronin.
Marty Price is a freelance writer: firstname.lastname@example.org
Want to go?
The Wings of Eagles Ranch, 4800 Faith Trails in Concord, has two fundraisers scheduled for early November. On Nov. 1, the ranch will offer portraits at the ranch, by appointment only. From 11 a.m.-5 p.m. Nov. 2, The Bob Cronin Memorial Golf Tournament will be held at The Club at Irish Creek. For more information, go to http://www.wingsofeaglesranch.org