By JENNIFER MEIER
THE GOSHEN NEWS
MIDDLEBURY — The unbridled success of LoveWay isn’t really due to any one person. It’s taken many dedicated people over many years to bring the therapeutic equestrian services center into its 40th year.
During its biggest fundraiser of the year, Derby Day, a video presentation will highlight the evolution of LoveWay, its success stories and continued mission to help physically and emotionally disabled children.
The Saturday event begins at 6 p.m. at the Lerner in downtown Elkhart.
“It’s a little like the Kentucky Derby,” said Volunteer Coordinator Aimee Miller. “There’s a fancy hat contest. Everyone dresses nicely. There’s a DJ, cocktails, heavy hors d’oeuvres and our live and silent auctions. It’s really a fantastic evening.”
Tickets cost $100 each and $800 will reserve a table. Walk-ins are welcome, however, reservations are preferred. Tickets can be purchased online at lovewayinc.org or by calling (574) 825-5666.
“We have a gaming license this year,” Miller said. “The board members will participate in a hobby horse race where you can bet actual money. It will be a 50/50 payout.”
LoveWay was born out of equal parts love, tragedy and the dedication and determination of a few volunteers.
In the early 1970s, Northridge High School student Laurie Weatherwax visited the Cheff Therapeutic Riding Center in Augusta, Mich.
“Oh, she was so excited about it,” said her mother Sandy. “She told her dad, you could do this. I helped someone just like you!”
Her dad Gary was once an avid horseback rider who became a paraplegic after an accident.
“Then, the summer she was 16, she traveled to Africa for a study abroad,” Sandy said. “We didn’t know it, but she came back with a virus.”
It wasn’t long after her return that Laurie, Gary and Sandy’s only child, died.
“It was beyond heartbreaking,” Sandy said in a whisper, “But after feeling sorry for ourselves for a while, we wanted to start a therapeutic horseback riding program in her honor.”
With one certified instructor, 100 acres along C.R. 33 in Middlebury, a barn, five horses, a lot of hard work and her husband’s checkbook, Sandy turned Laurie’s love into a reality.
“The Lord was in it from the beginning. It was a gift, because we were at a point where we didn’t care about anything and would rather not keep going,” Sandy said.
She remembered the day she thought of a name for her endeavor.
“I was standing at the kitchen sink trying to think of something to call this and LoveWay just bopped me over the head,” Sandy said. “It’s Laurie’s initials.”
Success came quickly for the small organization.
“The rewards were almost immediate,” Sandy said. “It was very exciting.”
School children from Elkhart County, South Bend and Michigan were coming in small groups throughout the week with their teachers, parents and caregivers.
“These autistic children were reaching out to touch the horses. Blind students were gaining this amazing confidence and there were so, so many physical benefits,” Sandy said. “Children with their little arms and legs pulled up tight to their bodies would relax and loosen up when they were on the horses.”
Some of the benefits of therapeutic horseback riding include improved balance and coordination, faster reflexes, improved muscle tone, increased respiration, circulation and digestion and improved personal interaction.
An equine-assisted learning program uses the horses as a tool to help at-risk middle and high school students.
“These kids who have visited the principal’s office multiple times for behavioral issues participate in curriculums like Cowboy Poetry and Journey of the Spirit Horse,” Miller said. “It’s pretty amazing. They begin putting what they are learning into action.”
In one activity the students team up to guide a horse across the indoor arena without touching it and without talking to each other.
“Often, they don’t do things they would have done before because they know their horse wouldn’t want them to,” Miller said. “And they form this special relationship. They tell their horse things they wouldn’t tell anyone else.”
Today’s LoveWay boasts 17 horses (two still in their 30-day trial period), 15 stalls, an 80-by-104 foot arena, a 60-by-80 foot hay barn, offices and an observation room all on 29 acres right on the spot where Sandy began it 40 years ago.
Eight staff, including five certified therapeutic riding instructors and 150 volunteers, serve more than 250 children year-round with day, evening and Saturday sessions.
LoveWay Executive Director Daryl Abbott has been with the organization for three years.
“They asked me to give a hand to their fundraising efforts and get their finances in order,” Abbott said. “And it’s turned out to be a blessing for me. Now if you ask me too much about horses, I’d be in real trouble, but I really enjoy this place, the people and the work.”
Abbott sees the success of LoveWay as a result of teamwork.
“We each bring unique gifts. Every single person here is committed to the mission,” Abbott said. “So many volunteers came here to help others and have found help themselves.”
Each person, each story has played a role in LoveWay’s continued contributions to children’s health and well-being.
“I had no idea how generous people can be. From maintenance, to stall cleaning to vet services, everything gets done, and gets done well,” Abbott said.
Sandy is grateful to every one of them. She remembers 16-year-old Stacy Starly who organized the first big fundraiser by riding a horse 65 miles from the Cheff Center in Michigan to the doors of LoveWay.
Then there’s Agnes Reigsecker who answered Sandy’s first advertisement in the paper for volunteers and served the organization for many years; or Chris Ball, a former rider at LoveWay, who is now on the board of directors.
Juanita Herschberger is the equine manager. One of her many jobs is to take a opinionated but well-mannered 350-pound pony named Goliath to visit nursing home residents (yes, right down the halls of the home).
“We are booming because of the sincerity and hard work of everybody today and over the years,” Sandy said.
Other fundraisers include Gallop for the Green golf outing in August and the Ride-a-thon breakfast, trail ride and fun fair in the fall.