Gaston & Catawba

Gastonina’s Bit of Hope Ranch helps children deal with traumas

How children, adults and families react to traumas such as the loss of a loved one or physical or sexual abuse can trigger a range of reactions – angry outbursts and aggression, panic attacks or withdrawal.

And learning to cope can come in the form of a horse.

That’s the reason Meg Vanderbilt dreamed of founding Bit of Hope Ranch Inc., which is tucked away on 45 wooded acres off C.R. Wood Road in southern Gaston County.

Vanderbilt, a former school teacher and riding instructor, turned that dream into reality some seven years ago. During her years in the classroom and the riding rink, she’s seen how working with and riding horses could help at-risk children cope with their lives and gain the self-confidence they need to succeed in school.

She started with only a pony, no land and no money, she said with a chuckle. She’d acquired the pony when a student gave it to her as payment for riding lessons.

She had served as a riding consultant at a former farm that stabled horses on the 45 acres where Bit of Hope Ranch is now located.

When the place came on the market 10 years ago, she yearned to acquire the land and use it as a place to take in abused horses, restore their spirits and use them to help do the same for at-risk children, she said.

She thought the place would be ideal, even though the barn and enclosed riding rink had loose boards and the roof of another structure was caving in.

“I told God that if he would somehow provide a down payment that we would take care of the rest,” she said.

After inviting an investor she hoped would lend a hand, they waded through waist-high weeds to check out the property. The investor said he’d need to think about providing the down payment needed to purchase the site but would give her his decision the next day, Vanderbilt said.

“But 45 minutes after leaving the farm, he called to say he wouldn’t make the down payment. Instead, he said he would buy the property and we could use it rent-free,” Vanderbilt said. “That was miracle number one.”

Friends and others who had learned about her plan pitched in to repair the fencing needed to keep horses on the property and restore and refurbish the stable, rink and other buildings needed to house the animals. And when the gates opened in 2007, the ranch experienced a groundswell of demand for its services.

Heather Addison Breese now is the ranch’s staff therapist. She holds a bachelor’s degree in elementary education and a master’s degree in school counseling from UNC Charlotte, plus certification in how to use horses as part of therapy by the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association.

She provides counseling for anxiety, self-esteem, grief and loss, depression, trauma, abuse, anger, defiance, emotional and behavior management and other counseling for individual, couples, groups and families.

Payment for counseling sessions are billed on a sliding scale, based on income, she said.

Christine Fogarty, a physician’s assistant, is the ranch’s EAGALA-certified equine specialist. Associated with the ranch for five years, she helps with feeding and caring for the animals, conducting Equine Assisted Growth Learning Association (EAGALA) groups, being a station teacher for school groups who visit on field trips, writing grant requests needed to finance the ranch’s operational costs and promoting the establishment through public speaking engagements and giving tours and demonstrations.

Amanda Hurt, who started coming to the ranch four years ago as a volunteer, is now a Certified Horsemanship Association instructor and equine specialist on her ranch’s therapeutic team.

“I always had a desire to work with horses and learned, from being here, that I also had a desire to work with kids. Being a part of that is rewarding,” Hurt said. It kind of give me hope for the future.”

Briana Perkins, a graduate student in Winthrop University’s counseling and development program, is interning at the ranch under Breese’s supervision. She’s also an intern in Winthrop’s Community Counseling Clinic. Interning at the ranch will allow her to sit for the National Certified Counselor examination in March.

Breese, who for privacy reasons could not enlist clients to tell how working with horses has helped them solve their emotional problems, said such stories abound.

She relayed how a teenager who had suffered physical and verbal abuse throughout childhood recently found help for the teen’s aggressive anger after only two counseling and equine therapy sessions.

The teen, who suffered from attachment and abandonment disorders, had been returned from 15 placements in foster homes, she said, because the teen frequently had to be physically restrained as a result of lashing out angrily when touched by foster parents.

The teen, after a skittish beginning, established a trusting relationship with a horse, during the first session, Breese said. The teen spent the entire second session simply standing with arms hugging the horse’s neck and expressing gratitude that the horse had not forgotten.

That’s one of many of the successes that have occurred, Vanderbilt said. “We have seen more than 550 children for therapy and more than 3,500 for educational programs since we opened our gates,” she said.

Vanderbilt said in addition to paid staff, dozens of volunteers are needed to keep the ranch afloat.

Bit of Home Ranch Inc. receives some income from reserving the ranch facilities for birthday parties, weddings and other social functions. But it largely depends on tax-deductible private financial donations and grants to operate, such as a recent Make an Impact Foundation donation that helped finish the Counseling Corral, a quiet and comfortable room where clients sit and discuss their problems with the counseling team.

But, Vanderbilt said, it also depends on donations of mundane needs such as paper towels, toilet paper, work gloves, hand soap, sanitizer, crushed stone, fill dirt, mulch, hay bales and gift cards to purchase other supplies.

Stephanie Hayes said she and her children have been volunteers since the ranch opened in 2007.

“I always taught my kids that they should do for others. The kids were shy and quiet when they first came here to help, but as time went by they turned into kids with smiles and kids full of joy. It has been a blessing for us to come out here, serve and be a part of this ministry,” Hayes said. “This has become our home away from home.”