For many people, doing what you feel led to do is a demanding task, often involving major life changes and multiple difficult decisions. For Vollie Heitkamp, that decision involved leaving her job in corporate America to begin Hope Rides, a non-profit horse ranch that aims to “connect children and horses together in a safe, peaceful and loving environment intended for healing, growth and hope.”
Seven years after learning of this call, Heitkamp has helped Hope Rides to become a thriving mentorship program for kids from all walks of life.
Hope Rides began in 2006 when Heitkamp started the non-profit with virtually nothing.
“At that time there wasn’t any foundation,” said Heitkamp. “Each step of the way God just continued to provide.”
It wasn’t until 2009 that the program started at a location in Stacy, Minn., with six children. Without any advertising, the program grew to include over 20 children that fall. In 2010, Heikamp was led to another site in Mayer and began to solidify the meaning behind Hope Rides.
Heitkamp started the program with four foundational principles – hope, mentor, strengthen and enhance. These principles are meant for both the horses and the children. Many of the nine horses that are used by Hope Rides are rescue horses that need to be rehabilitated and reprogrammed to trust human hands. Once they have graduated to be a Hope Rides horse they know that connecting with the kids is their job.
“Our horses know their job and they are engaged,” said Heitkamp. “And that is important because so many of the kids that come here have families that are not engaging.”
The children that come to Hope Rides are between the ages of 5 and 18 and come from many different emotional and physical situations. The programming is free, and Heitkamp added that the only requirement is that the child wants to be there. The horse is used to mirror the child’s situation and aid in helping them learn boundaries through interaction.
“Kids have fear-related stuff, and we have to get them to understand that they need to trust the process more than their need to stay paralyzed in fear,” added Heitkamp.
Traditional programming at the ranch lasts 90 minutes. For the first 30 minutes, the children are in a small group setting where they will do chores around the ranch, games or other icebreaker activities. After that time period, the horses and the children come back in the barn and are matched up one to one with a volunteer session leader who aims to give the child a unique experience. The children are at different levels of familiarity and comfort with the horses – some jump right in the saddle and others are more comfortable painting or cleaning the horse. The session leaders will meet the child where he or she needs to be met.
“The ultimate goal being that the kid leaves in a better place than they were when they got there – more encouraged, more confident, more poised,” said Heitkamp.
Mary Krupski sent her daughter, who was interested in riding lessons, to Hope Rides after seeing evidence that Hope Rides was a riding program overflowing with the values of love, compassion, responsibility and purpose. Krupski knew that her daughter would be connected with the right people at Hope Rides. She highly recommended Hope Rides to others, adding that Hope Rides opened her family’s mind to the possibility of her daughter’s continual riding and “blessed our daughter with confidence and a passion.”
Hope Rides is open basically from March through November from 10 a.m. to 3:30 p.m. on Tuesdays in Stacy and on Thursdays in Mayer. Information about appointments for programming can be found by emailing [email protected], visiting the website at www.hoperides.org or calling (612) 310-6350.
In 2012, Hope Rides served over 350 children, free of charge. Everything that Hope Rides takes in has been raised from donations and fundraisers. Although Heitkamp emphasized that the program exists to serve, it still has to raise funds to remain up and working. It costs around $2,500 a month to board a horse. Not including insurance, this totals around $72,000 a year, over $20,000 more than Hope Rides’ current budget.
“We have a long way to go in terms of generating community support in that capacity,” said Heitkamp.
There are many ways to donate to Hope Rides, including sponsoring a horse for a month or a year, making a commitment to a one time or monthly donation, donating hay, fencing or automatic waters, or donating construction or landscaping services.
On Sunday, June 23, Hope Rides will host its second annual youth horse show at the Carver County Fairgrounds. In addition to traditional pleasure and game horse showing, the free Hope Rides horse show will have a silent auction, a charity ball toss and a raffle drawing. The charity ball toss is an event in which people buy pre-numbered tennis balls that will be thrown at a stake in the middle of the arena at lunchtime. The three balls closest to the stake will win prizes. The lunch vendor will donate a portion of the lunch sales, and there is also class entry free to help raise money. The event will begin at 8 a.m., rain or shine.
“We desperately want to get people in the community who don’t own horses to come and learn that Hope Rides exists and that we are available,” said Heitkamp.
Last year the event raised a little under $7,000, and Heitkamp is optimistic that this year will improve upon that goal.
“It’s a chance to support something that is making a lasting impact right in their own backyard,” said Heitkamp, who encouraged all to come experience the horse show.
In the future, Hope Rides hopes to own the site in Mayer, which will provide comprehensiveness of being able to fulfill the whole mission of the organization. The program also hopes to be open five days a week with continual sessions.