Bonnie Rachael is accustomed to smiles and tears of joy.
Of course, she’s used to seeing them from other people, through the life-changing work of the non-profit organization she founded seven years ago, Faith Equestrian Therapeutic Center.
But she was on the receiving end of the giving Tuesday morning, as the Effingham Sunrise Rotary Club surprised her with its 2013 Service Above Self Award.
“Wow, I have never been so surprised in my entire life,” Rachael said.
Faith Equestrian provides assisted horseback riding for people with disabilities, primarily children. The therapeutic riding and accompanying educational activities are designed to stimulate the body and the mind.
“I do it for the children,” she said, “and for the love of God. This is His project, not mine.”
In fact, Rachael said, the idea for Faith Equestrian came to her one day at her church. She happened to pick up a magazine as she helped tidy up following the Sunday service, and an article about a therapeutic riding center caught her eye.
Rachael was retiring from the Savannah Police Department after 14 years with its mounted patrol unit, and she was looking for another way to serve the community. Inspired by the magazine story, she found her answer in the horses and five acres of property she owned in Guyton.
As Rachael explains, “It was like God told me, ‘You have everything you need. You need some training, but you have the farm, you have the horses and this is what I want you to do with your life.’ It was like a calling.”
Faith Equestrian has grown steadily since it began in 2006 and now serves 50-60 clients a year, according to Rachael. Each lesson is about 30 minutes long and is designed specifically to the student’s needs, whether that is physical, behavioral, cognitive or emotional.
“Bonnie always says that it’s not a pony ride, and it’s definitely not,” said Faith Equestrian instructor Jessica Meyer. “It’s the furthest thing from a pony ride. Some of the kids have been with us since we started, and they’ve come so far.”
Meyer shared some of those success stories at the Service Above Self Award presentation. She smiled as she talked about a boy with autism who blossomed through the program.
The boy wanted nothing to do with equine therapy when he was introduced to it about five years ago and wouldn’t even go near the horse. But now, Meyer said, the child mounts and steers the horse all by himself and “just talks non-stop” with the Faith Equestrian volunteers.
Meyer described another autistic boy who “hadn’t said a word” the entire time he had been taking lessons at FETC. He wouldn’t cooperate when Rachael asked him to say “walk on,” her standard practice to motivate students to communicate as they begin their ride.
“One day, after riding for three years, he finally said, so loud, ‘Walk on!’” Meyer recalled. “His mom was all excited and crying and all of us were crying, and it was just the best thing. He still has a long way to go with his speech, but he says ‘walk on’ almost every time you ask him and he is just doing really well.”
Faith Equestrian continues to grow its volunteer base, and Fort Stewart’s 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry has recently gotten on board to help. FETC plans to open an education center on its grounds, including a literacy program for the underprivileged, which will be housed in a 2,100-square-foot building that was donated to the organization last year.
“We have a lot of great things on the horizon,” she said. “I’m excited!”
Rachael’s love for horses began at a young age. Rotarian Billy Dasher told a story that in high school Rachael was a drummer in the band Chuck & Bonnie, and she sold her drum set to buy her first horse.
The first step toward making Faith Equestrian a reality came in 1992, when Rachael bought two horses and five acres of land. It was a dream she had since she was a little girl.
“Why five acres and two horses, I don’t know,” she said. “It was just a childhood dream. The Good Lord took it from there.”