MAKANDA -- A local equine therapy program has outgrown its facility and is looking for help from the state for funding to expand.
Specialized Equine Services and Therapeutic Riding currently operates at Giant City Stables near Makanda. As the program has grown in popularity, it has also outgrown its home.
"We have 13 stalls for 29 horses," said Ramona Twellman, executive director of the organization, who leases the stables from the state. "We really need a few more horses and room to house them."
Twellman also said the facility needs a space that can be utilized year-round, regardless of weather.
"We are at kind of a junction in our history," said Bearadino Baratta, co-founder and treasurer of the organization told a gathering of state officials, medical professionals, and program participants on Friday morning. "To get to the next level, we need help from the community."
"Equine therapy is a widely-used tool for those with physical, mental, and emotional disabilities," said Twellman. She said the therapy improves clients' interpersonal relationships, impulse control, stress tolerance and flexibility.
"Children with cerebral palsy will get symmetrical firing on both sides of their spines," she said. "Eight minutes of that gives them more of a workout than a 20-minute physical therapy session."
On the emotional side, Twellman said the therapy addresses issues like confidence, anger, fear and allows participants to be assertive without being aggressive.
Stephanie Brown knows just how valuable the therapy can be. The Carterville mom's son, Mason, is on the autism spectrum.
"He's on the higher end now," she said, a drastic change from his original diagnosis that she attributes to Twellman's program.
Brown said her son was only 3 when doctors told her he would always be on the lower end of the spectrum.
"They said he would never have expressive language," she said. "I just went home and took that as it was."
After doing her own research, Brown, now the president of the Southern Illinois Autism Society, sought the services that Twellman's program offered.
"I stalked them daily," she said with a grin. Her son was younger than the program usually accepted.
"I finally gave in and told her to bring him," said Twellman, laughing.
Brown said Mason is now 7 and the benefits of the therapy are obvious.
"He reads above grade level and his cognitive level is just amazing," she said. "We proved those doctors wrong."
About a dozen local veterans also participate in the program, according to Shelley Brown, a psychiatrist at the Marion Veterans Administration Medical Center.
"This program makes them happy," she said. "They find joy."
Brown said horseback riding gives vets relief from anxiety and depression, and opportunities for outdoor time and socialization. "It's also good exercise," she said. "Backs and hips in pain get more flexible."
She said she believes more veterans would take advantage of the program if there were a private entrance and area away from the public.
Gary Wyant of Benton is a Vietnam vet who regularly rides Playboy.. "It keeps me in the moment," he said. "When I'm here, this is all I think about. It's the best thing that's happened to me in 50 years."
The purpose of Friday's summit was not a plea for a new facility, but for funding to study how the program can expand.
"I would call this a spitball meeting," said state Rep. Terri Bryant (R-Murphysboro). "There is a clear need to expand this program. We need to do everything we can to really make this everything that it could be."
Bryant said the starting point is to explore area resources.
"There are great resources at SIU," she said. "There are also entrepreneurial individuals that we all know well."
State Sen. Dale Fowler (R-Harrisburg) agreed.
"We need to know what you need from us to help you," he said.
Volunteer Martha Cropper, a retired grant writer from SIU's small business incubator, explained the organization needs money for a research grant.
"We need to study our options and the funding to do that, to bring in people that can help us reach our goal," she said.
State Sen. Paul Schimpf (R-Waterloo) reflected on his own experience in the U.S. Marine Corps, where his squad used horses to patrol at Guantanamo Bay.
For more information, call (618) 529-4110 or visit www.setherapeuticriding.com.