Cynthia Williams majored in Exercise Science at Furman University. During her studies, she was assigned to work with a child with a physical disability: and so began her journey of helping people. She became a physical therapist and enjoyed working with pediatric patients. She has two sons, and the older was diagnosed with autism at the age of 4.
While Cynthia was working weekends at a local hospital, a neighbor told her about Riverwood Therapeutic Riding Center, which offered the perfect opportunity to use her skills and experience. The Riverwood mission is to provide equine-assisted activities for children and adults with disabilities and improve their physical, mental and emotional well-being.
What inspires you to volunteer?
I always feel blessed when I get to help people. I like to make a difference, especially with people with physical and mental challenges. Instead of getting upset about something that should be trivial, I can refocus on helping others.
Recently I was nominated for another award, the 2023 Forsyth County Governor’s Volunteer Service Award, for my volunteer service at Riverwood Therapeutic Riding Center.
Some people get overwhelmed when they see people in wheelchairs; sometimes they’re nonverbal and you have to figure out other ways to communicate. Even though I had zero experience with horses, I had plenty of experience with people with special needs. In my years of volunteering, I’ve learned a lot about horses. Some volunteers have a lot of horse background but not as much experience with the riders, so I think we have a great blend of people with diverse backgrounds and skills.
Tell us about your volunteer role with the Riverwood Therapeutic Riding Center.
I have been volunteering at Riverwood since 2007 and have participated in two to three Riverwood classes each week since then. I appreciate having the flexibility to be a mom while still using my background as a physical therapist and community advocate. I still maintain my PT license in both Florida and North Carolina.
I often work as a side walker. As a side walker, I walk alongside the horse and rider, interact with the rider and ensure their safety. Sometimes I act as the leader who handles the horse. I also clean stalls, help riders mount and dismount, help riders untack the horses and put the tack away. Sometimes, I help with grounds work and gardening to beautify the facility before a fundraiser or horse show.
What inspired you to get started with this initiative?
After I found out about Riverwood and started volunteering there, I met another volunteer who was also a physical therapist. This helped reaffirm why I’m there. I don’t have to have a paid job as a physical therapist to make a difference.
We have about 70 riders every week and 10 therapy horses. Not all participants ride in every session.
Sometimes we hold ground lessons including grooming. I help wherever I’m needed. We always begin sessions with enrichment activities set up in the arena. These involve teaching language and motor skills as well as riding. We help our riders use their weaker side if appropriate and work on verbal skills. For the last part of the lesson, we take riders on interactive trails we call the alphabet or hippo trail. Most of our riders are children, but we do cater to some adults as well.
I also assist at the Coop at Riverwood, where we sell used tack as well as arts and crafts from local artisans. Riverwood riders participate in this and develop vocational skills like cleaning tack, preparing items for sale and helping customers.
What are your long-term plans or goals for the organization?
I plan to stay at Riverwood indefinitely. I even came back to Riverwood after I had major surgery 10 years ago.
What’s been the most rewarding part of your work?
It is so rewarding to see what the riders can accomplish. Maybe they had been told, or they believed, that they couldn’t do something, and we help show them that they can. They are empowered and their self-esteem gets a huge boost when they learn a new skill.
Sometimes nonverbal kids with autism or other developmental delays will say, “Walk on” or “Whoa” which might be their first words spoken. The whole Riverwood community is making a difference in people’s lives. But it goes both ways. Riders, families, volunteers, staff, horses… we all help each other to thrive.
What have you learned through your experiences as a volunteer?
Whenever I’m intimidated, I ask for help. I’m a perfectionist and I hate to make mistakes. Working at Riverwood has helped me get out of my comfort zone and learn what I need to learn. I’ve learned to keep things in perspective. It’s important to be grateful and recognize the small achievements and not take for granted all the blessings and abilities that I have.
It’s so nice to have a community of resources like this, filled with people with different backgrounds and strengths. We all contribute based on our own gifts. I’m a parent of a child on the autism spectrum, so it’s so important on a personal level to have the support of this community. It helps me deal with challenges that come with having a son who is differently abled.
Tell us about future partnerships, programs or events that you are excited about.
The annual horse show is coming up in May, I hope to contribute and be part of that. I look forward to watching the students show how much they have learned over the past year.
Why is it important for others to get involved with causes they care about?
Everyone can contribute something. It is important to use our gifts and abilities to help each other. The benefits don’t just end at the recipient. We volunteers also experience personal growth and satisfaction from doing something for others.
Any advice for people who want to start volunteering?
I understand about being nervous and not wanting to mess up. I encourage you to start with doing something you’re comfortable with and gradually branch out to things you aren’t familiar with. Take the first small step outside your comfort zone. Stepping out of the comfort zone becomes easier with practice. We are all constantly learning. I’ve found that people are willing to help, and they won’t be upset if you mess up. We might fail, but that’s how we learn, and we’re supported every step of the way.
What do you want people to learn from your story?
What a blessing it is to be able to provide support to others and help them reach their potential. Don’t be afraid to try new things that seem intimidating. There’s so much joy in watching others reach their goals and enjoying the simple things. It’s important to play games and have fun, too. I’m very task-oriented and my experiences at Riverwood have made me slow down and appreciate the joys of being a “human being” not always a “human doing.” Focus on love. The negativity we hear in the news won’t have such an impact when we choose to see the good in people and help each other.
Do you want to make a difference in your community like Cynthia? Find local volunteer opportunities.