Caitlin Janus, an eighth grader from Central Vermont, is the creator of a therapeutic horseback riding program for handicapped children. In rural Vermont, a program like this meets needs for children with disabilities and increases the community's awareness about the need to break down barriers and stereotypes. Because of this program, started in the summer of 1997, children with disabilities are able to participate in a physical activity that increases confidence levels and teaches how to gain control of one's fears, be it of a large animal or anything else.
Caitlin started the program because she wanted to share her love of horses and riding with children whom she felt were least likely to be exposed to that experience. She spoke with her mentor and riding teacher, Carol Fleck, about her desire to help disabled children. She encouraged Caitlin and offered support for the project. Starting in January 1996, Caitlin undertook all the preparation work herself. She called a therapeutic riding specialist, who provided other names of people around the U.S. who give therapeutic riding lessons. She met with a local therapeutic riding teacher and corresponded with another in Massachusetts. After much research, she made a video on proper care of horses and riding, which she showed to local children with disabilities. After engaging the interest of potential students with her video, Caitlin and her mentor sent permission slips to parents, and then scheduled lessons that coincided with the needs of the students and their families. The riding teacher, with Caitlin's assistance, gave lessons while their families looked on.
The program now takes place every summer, providing lessons for about 3 kids each year. So far, more than 5 kids have received this one-on-one therapy. The riding specialist that works with Caitlin donates her time and the riding facility where Caitlin gets her own lessons gives her full use of the facility, their horses and their equipment. In order to fund the program, Caitlin holds fundraising activities, such as selling flowers. The community has gotten behind the program and many volunteer.
Excited about the success of her therapeutic riding program, Caitlin has recently taken on another venture. Since her riding program is now established and thus only requires her time during the summer months, she wanted to serve her community in some way during the school year. After researching pet therapy for the elderly, Caitlin and a fellow classmate, Amanda Whitney, organized a group of students who took their pets to a local nursing home to play with residents. So far, the experience has been rewarding for all involved.
Because Caitlin was part of an integrated service learning program at her school, her fellow students learned of the program and that barriers for children with disabilities can be overcome. Her desire to share something she loves with youth who previously had no access to riding lessons benefit the youth served, their families, the school community, the community at large – and Caitlin herself. She continues to enrich the lives of young Vermonters with disabilities who live in an area where they are sometimes isolated, while at the same time showing community members and school staff what a young person with determination and vision can do.