Gina Dust was running on a trail with a friend three years ago when a barn in the distance caught her attention. She saw horses outside, and her love of animals prompted her to dig deeper.
She researched the location and discovered the horses were part of Equine-Assisted Therapy, Inc., a non-profit organization dedicated to providing therapeutic horseback riding activities for individuals with special needs in the St. Louis area.
The organization was seeking volunteers, and Gina, a senior visual designer with Perficient Digital, signed up. She’s been volunteering for one hour every Monday night ever since.
Gina serves as what’s called a side walker. She does just that, and much more. She’s been working with the same boy since she started, and their sessions often begin with adding the horse tack. They groom the horse as well. The boy picks out his favorite brush, and they count out each stroke. They walk around, and he leads the horse.
They stretch and warm up and talk about the parts of the horse. “He’ll reach out and touch the tail on both sides, stretching out his arms, and he’ll do different stretching activities,” she said.
Gina might ask the boy questions like, “Where do your feet go?” and the boy will point to the stirrups. Eventually, an instructor assists with getting the boy on the horse. Most of the time, they ride around an indoor arena, waiving to the other riders. On nice days, they’ll venture outdoors.
The boy is now 14, and Gina has seen significant change in him since they met. At first, he was somewhat quiet and reserved. “Now, every time I see him he says, ‘hi,’ and is happy and looks forward to it,” she said.
“It’s been amazing to see his progress. It’s been life changing for him.”
The experience has had quite an impact on Gina as well. She’s enjoyed not only seeing the progress in the boy she works with, but also the other riders.
“There was another girl in our class who didn’t have a lot of muscle movement from her waist down, so she had to use a special walker. When she first started, she wasn’t able to stay in the saddle well, and she would slide from one side to another. Now that she’s been doing this more often, she’s gained the strength to sit in the saddle.”
“It’s really awesome to hear those stories and help in those ways.”
Through it all, Gina has been grateful that Perficient’s commitment to work-life balance has given her the opportunity to devote time outside of the office to doing what she loves.
“I’ve been able to volunteer in the evenings at Equine Therapy, so it flows great with my work-life balance.”
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