Wednesday, September 27, 2017

          Early in my freshman year, a mass email fat with opportunity plopped into my inbox. UNC Charlotte’s psychology department was advertising a summer internship researching cognition - in dolphins! I preemptively opened the application knowing that in the not-so-distant future I would be pursuing a pre-professional internship through the Levine Scholars Program. This decision has impacted my life more than the simple task of clicking a link suggests. I stared at the application: “What experience have you previously had working with animals?” My answer, “none,” was likely not the preferred applicant response. This deficit in my experience weighed on my mind for several months until I was prompted to choose a nonprofit organization to intern with in the Summer between my freshman and sophomore years. When I learned that a previous scholar had worked with a nonprofit that not only interacted with large animals, but did so in a way that helped a needy human population, I was overjoyed. In this way, I discovered Victory Farm Inc., a therapeutic horseback riding organization that serves individuals of all ages with physical and mental disabilities.

            Victory Farm Inc. is a nonprofit located in Gastonia, North Carolina. Seven days out of the week, a completely volunteer staff works to rehabilitate horses that were once abandoned, neglected, and/or abused. Five days out of the week, twenty-five individuals living with disabilities, ranging from a five-year-old girl with cerebral palsy to a 92-year-old veteran with dementia, likewise find haven at Victory Farm. Therapeutic horseback riding provides socio-emotional, physical, and cognitive benefits for riders. Working with volunteers, other riders, and horses gives riders a safe and familiar environment in which to practice socialization skills. For example, making eye contact with a horse may come easier to an individual with autism than making eye contact with a human. This initial eye contact with any living creature acts as a stepping stone: eye contact with trusted individuals, including family members or volunteers from Victory Farm, often follows. Physical exertion from horseback riding increases the independence of riders. Sitting up on a horse engages the same core muscles necessary to sit up at a desk. Riders additionally gain coordination and perceptual skills, enabling them to carry books to class or to avoid tripping over obstacles. The primary cognitive benefits seen in riders at Victory Farm comes from increasing their ability to multitask; being able to look ahead at obstacles, say “whoa,” and pull back on reins simultaneously is one such example of multitasking seen in horseback riding. Multitasking has shown to reduce rider “meltdowns” caused by a touch, sight, or sound. At Victory Farm, riders learn to cope with stressful situations and filter information to move forward in a situation. They gain independence and make friends in the process.

         Given the magnitude of the work accomplished by Victory Farm, you might imagine sprawling fields, large ranch-style houses holding offices, and covered riding arenas allowing for work even in poor weather conditions. I regretfully inform you this is not the case. This incredible nonprofit currently operates off of borrowed land, under the constant threat of the elements and with only one small shed-turned-office space. The small size of the organization saddens me. Those who volunteer there are so incredibly dedicated to their efforts, and the many benefits afforded to the disabled through horseback riding are uncountable in their sheer volume. This organization deserves many hands to spread the reach of the good work and to lighten the load of each individual.

         However, in terms of learning experience, the small size of the organization did come with perks. I was given an incredible amount of responsibility because there were simply not enough volunteers available to accomplish every task, especially after my supervisor fell ill. By the fourth week of my internship, I was running a farm by myself. I was the only volunteer going in to do horse care most days, and I was responsible for other volunteers when they did come in to help. The timing of my internship placement was unforeseeably beneficial to Victory Farm, and likewise to myself as I gained the experience I sought working with animals.

            In addition to my time and efforts spent with the horses, I worked hard on administrative tasks such as writing newspaper articles, attending a banquet to receive donation money from a community run, writing grant proposals, updating the website, and more. Through these and additional responsibilities, I learned the inner workings of nonprofits. I learned the importance of community engagement, namely, that no matter how inspiring or helpful or necessary a cause is, if nobody knows about it, the reach of said cause is finite. Going into this summer experience, my greatest strength certainly wasn’t my knowledge of horses. Instead, it was my receptivity to learning opportunities of every variety.

            The greatest learning experience I encountered occurred one evening the first week of my internship. My supervisor and I were alone on the farm together and she was teaching me how to lead a horse with a rope. Simultaneously, she was teaching me about social hierarchy. I did not successfully waltz around with a horse on a rope that first day because, as my supervisor informed me, I lacked confidence. The horse wouldn’t follow my directions because they were unclear or weak. The horse was trying to assert her will over mine as much as I was trying to guide her. “This isn’t only the case with horses” my supervisor told me. “If you lack confidence, others will walk all over you.” For the rest of my summer, I was acutely aware of my interactions with others. I paid attention to how tall I was standing, who broke eye contact first, and who initiated actions such as handshakes or conversations. I am more aware now than ever before of the importance of confidence and how to portray confidence, thanks to the words of my supervisor.

           The summer experiences required by the Levine Scholars Program are brilliantly interwoven. In thinking of a future summer opportunity, I was led to Victory Farm Inc. where I gained experience working with animals, understanding of how nonprofits are run, and self-awareness. This internship provided irreplaceable learning opportunities; additionally, it built off of lessons I gained on my first summer experience on NOLS. My greatest takeaway from my summer experience in 2016 was that I need to be more confident in myself and not fear sharing my opinions. I did not anticipate the reappearance of this lesson in 2017, but it was necessary for me to consider where I have come from in terms of confidence and how far I still have to go. I am thankful for the Levine Scholarship for the resources making my formal education possible. More so, I am thankful for how this program is helping me to grow as an individual.