Friday, December 22, 2006

Pro-bono staff keep Shelby horse camp afloat

Shelby horse camp helps at-risk youths buck their problems
Crawford, Byron. Louisville Courier-Journal, April 26, 2006, pg. B1.

A small herd of used racehorses, saddlebreds, mountain-pleasure and quarter horses has found new life at Camp Kessa in eastern Shelby County carrying at-risk youths down happier trails to new lives of their own.

"The percentage of kids that really start shifting and making progress in this program is just something that I never saw before, or even thought was possible," said Penny Moers, a social worker from Milwaukee who came to Camp Kessa as a volunteer for three weeks in 2004.

Moers was so moved that she gave up her job in Wisconsin and has worked 1½ years as a clinical coordinator without pay sleeping in a horse trailer most of that time.

Changing lives
Camp Kessa, which takes its name from a child with cerebral palsy who spoke only when on a horse, has an almost spiritual hold on most of its staff and volunteers.

"Kessa was my sister's daughter, and she died at age 9 from complications of her disability," said Dr. Thecla Helmbrecht-Howard, a co-founder and co-executive director of the camp.

She is a former education director for the Kentucky Department of Juvenile Justice , and her husband, camp co-founder Anthony Howard, was the superintendent of a juvenile- treatment center.

"We constantly came upon kids who we had no place for," Helmbrecht-Howard said. "They'd complete their treatment and then the system had no room for them. We said, 'Here we are with all our education and training, so far away from working with kids. Let's just try to turn it upside down and get back on the front line with kids.'"

The Howards help
The Howard s used their savings to make a down payment five years ago on 110 mostly wooded acres near the Shelby-Franklin county line .

Each week they help 25 to 30 youngsters saddle up to ride through their property and 115 adjacent acres they have leased. Volunteers man the chuck wagon and assist with other services at the camp, which has about three campers per counselor .

"We've got kids who have problems in school, kids who've been abused, some kids that this is their last resort before going into foster care," said Ann Thompson, 16, a counselor-in-training who came to the program herself from a troubled past. "Sometimes our talks in circle-ups (around campfires) are so heart-touching that we all cry."

Josh Hauck, 15, said he has serious anger-management problems and difficulties in school. But he said the camp is changing his life.

"I'm learning to interact with others here," he said. "In school, I treat them bad because they treat me bad. Here, I'm learning to treat others the way I'd like to be treated."

Camp needs financial assistance
The non profit camp's shoestring budget is being stretched ever tighter as more youngsters apply for the camp often as many as eight out of 10 are unable to pay. Despite the dedication of volunteers and unpaid staff , Camp Kessa needs help.

The thoroughbred industry's horse donations helped establish the camp, and Jennifer Smith, the camp's community initiatives director, said the American saddlebred industry in Shelby County also is lending significant support.

Undulata Farm near Shelbyville, owned by prominent saddlebred trainer and breeder Edward "Hoppy" Bennett, is having a fund raising Derby party for Camp Kessa on May 4 at the farm.


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