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Some of you may know I am a student at the University of St. Thomas. I am a business student there and over J-term took a class called “Learning Through Service,” which essentially requires 40 hours of volunteer work to one non-profit over the term. This is a requirement for all business undergrad students, which I think is pretty amazing!

When I first thought about volunteering, it seemed like no big deal. I’ve volunteered at a few different organizations here and there over the years… but now after dedicating 40 hours of my time to a non profit in just one month, I’m astounded by the experience and feel inclined to encourage others to go out and volunteer more often.

I decided to volunteer at We Can Ride, Inc. which is a therapeutic riding facility that works to better the lives of individuals with disabilities or special needs using horse activities. I have volunteered in the horse industry before, but I had never worked in this specific area and was very intrigued. I was hoping to use the knowledge of horses that I already had to benefit a non profit, while also being able to learn new things.

I started out learning how to be a side-walker, meaning I assisted the student in class while they were with the horse. If they were riding, I would walk alongside the horse to ensure they were staying balanced and safe. It was such a wonderful experience interacting with the students and seeing the big smile on their face while riding. It truly filled me with joy to see everyone having such a great time, and it was a wonderful feeling to look around the room and see everyone smiling.

One night that stood out to me was a Wednesday night when I was assisting with a class with four riders. All four of these riders were susceptible to seizures, so two side-walkers were required per rider, plus a leader for each horse. Not to mention the instructor, assistant, and the barn aides who helped get the horses ready and warmed up. This means that in total about 16 volunteers were there that night to make that lesson possible. It was so moving to me that everyone came together to help these students ride and strengthen their minds and bodies with these horses. It was truly eye-opening to see everyone come together have a positive attitude.

A photo from the day of record setting wind chills; luckily the horses were warm in the barn!

Another thing I assisted with was feeding the horses in the morning a couple times each week. We Can Ride has 16 horses to care for each day and the caring volunteers give their time to ensure the horses get the best care possible. Of course I volunteered during record-breaking low temperatures in Minnesota… including wind chills as low as -50 degrees! Luckily the barn is heated, so the horses stayed warm and so did we. I volunteered a couple mornings each week for about 3 hours, and I have to say that it is a wonderful way to start the morning. Even though getting up at 5am isn’t my favorite, doing physical work first thing in the morning and watching the sun rise with the horses was actually pretty refreshing! I found that I actually enjoyed starting my mornings off in such a way.

This is Derby, the horse I worked with on Wednesday nights. He is over 30 years old!

In addition to being a side-walker, I spent each Wednesday night working with a student in a wheelchair. She unfortunately is unable to ride, but she is allowed to be in the arena with one of the horses and interact with him. Derby is over 30 years old and one of the sweetest horses I’ve ever met. Sarah was able to brush him, pet him, and tell the leader where to lead him and how fast to go. One night, Sarah brought in purple ribbon and asked me if I knew how to braid Derby’s mane and tail. I told her I did, and she asked that I used the purple ribbon in the braids so that Derby could be a Vikings fan. It was so fun to help Sarah out by braiding Derby’s hair and seeing her reaction when it was completed. I truly felt like I was making a difference. We then paraded Derby around the arena so Sarah could watch him sport his beautiful mane and tail. I wish I had snapped a photo – it was so precious!

I’m very excited to have had this experience because I do believe it will help me be a better business leader some day. I think it is amazing that St. Thomas is making this a requirement for their students and stressing the importance of giving back to their community. There are so many people who need help in different areas of their lives and there are so many people who are very able to help by volunteering! Now I know that if I have a lot of spare time, I can spend that time volunteering and making a difference, while also building relationships. I wish I had thought of that sooner in life!

One thing this experience made me think about is trying to be more “in-the-moment.” I feel like I spend a lot of timing thinking over things in my head and having a million things running through my mind, but one thing volunteering at We Can Ride pushed me to do was to be in the moment and truly dedicate myself to the work I was putting in. Time truly went so fast while I was volunteering, I felt like I was always surprised by how late it had gotten when I looked at the clock. I loved the fact that being there meant that I had to devote all of my attention to either the students or the horses, and that meant really focusing on what I was doing and making it even more genuine or meaningful. Now thinking about it, I see that I can apply this to other areas of my life and try to ensure I’m being present in the moment as much as possible.

Unfortunately I did not get a chance to bring my camera out to We Can Ride… after all, it has been fairly cold all month! So I apologize for the lack of photos, but I would encourage everyone to visit We Can Ride’s website or Facebook page and find out if there are ways you can help! Or, check with local non-profits and see if there are volunteer opportunities. If you dedicate your time, I promise you will not be disappointed!

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