*Note: To protect the legal and confidential interests of the children mentioned in this document, their names have been altered.
It is 8:45 am. We are set to depart for our destination at precisely 9:15. 30 minutes should be more than enough time to gather paperwork and pack the vans with very necessary first aid kits, extra socks, water coolers, sack lunches, and of course, the children. The morning air is slightly brisk, but the already blaring sun alludes to the day turning out to be a beautiful one. As I proceed to the common space, I am all at once bombarded with tiny arms wrapped around my ribs, waist, and ankles in choking hugs. It takes 5 minutes to return their love and pry free from their life-sucking embraces—8:50 am.
Out of nowhere, two children break into synchronized crying fits. Uncontrollable heaving, piercing screams, flying crayons flung about in frustration, feet and legs frantically fluttering and crashing into the floor. Intense holds of compassion, rhythmic breathing, and mantra-like assurances that ‘everything is okay; you’re okay’ finally assuage once seemingly inconsolable little bodies. The process took approximately ten minutes in total– 9:00 am.
Just as I turn my heels to begin the loading process, the sadly familiar, yet jarring sound of fists crashing into plaster commands my attention, and the now startled, bulging eyes of everyone in the room. A guttural cry mixed with pacing, scrounged fists, puffed jaws, tears streaming down cheeks, and eyes glaring with exhaustion characterize a frame so innocent and feeble, that the contradiction alone is pitiful and distressing.
“Are you hurt?” I proceed to scan his hands; thankfully there’s no blood or visible bruising. “You’re tired, huh?”
“Yes, so tired.” There’s clearly a double meaning in his statement.
“Can you trust me when I say that you’ll make it through this day?”
“Yes, I can trust you.”
Following a tight, swaying hug and repetitious head caresses, he finally lets go, signaling that some semblance of peace has been restored. But oh no, it’s 9:11 am. Mountains will need to be moved in 3 minutes, but it’s possible, anything is possible. Again, I turn to proceed to complete vital tasks. Before I can take one breath, Jesse Owens reincarnated zooms past me and out the common space doors. I reflexively follow behind him, out one set of doors, then another, up steps, through more doors, down steps, out the main doors, and onto the property lawn. I manage to catch up with him and swoop him up in my arms. While he giggles nonchalantly and I gasp for air, we make our way back inside – 9:14 am. In one minute, I line up the travelers, enlist the help of all formerly distressed children and those few children with a compulsion to assist, and we successfully load onto the vans — 9:17 am. Two minutes behind schedule, but we’ll take it.
The disarray does not necessarily stop on the vans. However, the lengthy drive eventually puts most of the children to sleep. It takes the familiar sound of gravel crushing under tires to shake awake the groggy little ones.
When they open their eyes and realize where they are, they press their faces against the windows and shout in unison, “It’s horseback riding day!”
All at once, the cacophony of chaos that permeated the morning ceases upon first sight of the horses and once they enter the barn.
So much magic occurs within the barn. Countless lessons are acquired before any interactions with horses take place. Mrs. Jennifer routinely sits the children down in the circle of picnic tables to discuss what love and belief in oneself entail. Critical open-ended questions push the children to reflect on their fears, their capacity for greatness, and “I am” statements that ring true for them. And in a call-and-response fashion, Mrs. Jennifer tells them to repeat prepared “I am” statements to recount for future use.
Once in the barn, and assigned horses, they are coached in lessons of care. With every stroke of the brush against the manes of the horses, they learn what it means to look out for the well-being of others. They gain insight into the therapeutic gains of slowing down, taking one’s time, and gently pushing through to the completion of a task.
They are prompted to keep their voices at a low volume, and refrain from swift movements or running inside the stables, so as not to alarm the horses. Here, the children learn how to self-regulate their behavior and the ways in which their actions can directly contribute to a safe, peaceful environment.
Mounting the horses is where a lot of emotions arise. Sitting atop a horse for the first, second, or third time can be daunting. No child is forced to do it, but rather, they are encouraged to process whatever feelings emerge as they attempt to do so. The children are always assured that there is no rush and that the process will take as long as needed. Agape staff tenderly guide the kiddos through matching words with feelings of unease. “Tell me what you are feeling. What’s going in your mind, in your heart right now? What “I am” statement can help you through?” In being given the space to outwardly express their vulnerability, they learn that they are capable of navigating turbulent circumstances, acting as conduits of their own tranquility and empowerment.
What always starts off as a disorderly day, indeed, ends up being beautiful when we visit Agape. Hearing, “That was the best day of my life!”…every time we visit; or “When are we coming back?!” before we even have a chance to leave the parking lot is more than enough assurance that Agape hits the mark each and every time.
2 YEARS OF PARTNERSHIP: A REFLECTION
It has been two magnificent years since Dayspring Center first established a community partnership with Agape. And in that time, over 80 children have been blessed in indescribable ways by Agape’s service.
- Over 80 children have seen a real horse for the very first time in their lives in these two years. – Over 80 children have learned the fundamentals of barn safety, grooming, and appropriate interaction with horses in that time.
- Over 80 children have learned how to properly mount, take the reins, and ride a horse in a closed arena and through an open trail.
But the impact goes deeper…
- These over 80 youth are part of Indy’s homeless population which is more than 70% children. They have experienced security and stability in the serene regimen implemented at Agape barns.
- These over 80 children are unfairly burdened with socioeconomic disadvantage and often know nothing more than tense and emotionally volatile family dynamics. They have experienced unwavering compassion and unconditional love from adults and horses at Agape who show them that warmth exists somewhere in what can be a cold world.
- I recount how Agape has never once turned any of our children away. For instance, Keenan was clinically diagnosed with a chromosomal disorder that impacts his intellectual and speech faculties, causes general developmental delays, and prompts him to run off unexpectedly. Considered too much to handle by most, he is often excluded from the most basic of activities. After inquiring to Jen if he would be able to participate, she promptly responded by saying, “We’ll take great care of Keenan! See you Thursday!” Not an ounce of apprehension, judgment, or rejection — just love.
- I reflect on how Agape always meets adverse behavior with patience and compassion. As with Chase, for example: He spewed reluctance from the moment he was prompted to change into an unfamiliar pair of cowboy boots; when he had to remove his comfort baseball cap and swap it for a riding helmet; when he had to stand in close proximity with a towering horse and charge their grooming; and when it came time to mount a horse for the very first time. His back talking and defiance were met with Mrs. Jennifer whispering, “You’re scared, aren’t you? This is all new, isn’t it?… It’s okay to be scared…. You’re brave, but you only have to do what you are comfortable doing.” — Again, just love.
- I recount how Agape never once judged these children who have no say in their circumstances, whose worlds have fallen apart at every crevice, and as a result present with anxiety disorders, depression, self-mutilation, acute anger, hypervigilance, developmental challenges, and countless other mental health difficulties. Agape truly sees, hears, and holds space for children unaccustomed to peace. They simultaneously show up for them and leave them with tools on how to show up for themselves – that’s love, Agape love.
The work that Agape does within and beyond the barn is apparent in children who regain smiles, laughs, breath, self-worth, control, peace of mind, and an understanding of what home feels and looks like – all things they can utilize beyond the barn and in their lives.
My name is Destiny Casson, and I am the Children’s Services Case Manager at Dayspring Center, an emergency shelter for families experiencing housing insecurity. And on behalf of Dayspring Center and all the children that are graced in our care, I would like to express the deepest gratitude to Agape for allowing us the opportunity to receive your services for yet another year. Thank you for giving our children some of the best days of their lives. Thank you for partnering with us in our mission to help families find their own way beyond the shelter, beyond the barn…back home.