GOSHEN — Plans by Middlebury Community Schools to construct a new equine therapy facility for its students took a major step forward Thursday during a meeting of the Elkhart County Plan Commission.
At the meeting, commission members approved a petition by Middlebury Community Schools for both a zoning change from Detailed Planned Unit Development Residential-1 to DPUD Agricultural-1 and primary approval of a new one-lot minor subdivision to be known as Middlebury Schools Equestrian Center DPUD.
According to Chris Godlewski, director of Elkhart County Planning & Development, the property is located just to the rear of Orchard View Elementary School on the east side of Northridge Drive, 1,747 feet north of C.R. 16/Wayne Street on the Middlebury Community Schools campus.
“The subject property consists of part of a parcel totaling 3.65 acres. It is rectangular in shape and currently vacant,” Godlewski said of the property. “The purpose of this rezoning petition is to develop the Middlebury Schools equestrian center, which will provide programs and activities for students.”
Godlewski noted that as currently planned, the new facility will include a large horse barn, classrooms, an office, bathroom facilities and a connected parking area and driveway.
“The surrounding property to the north, east and west is zoned agricultural. The property to the south is zoned DPUD Residential-1,” Godlewski added of the property. “The development will be served by the town of Middlebury’s municipal water and sewer system.”
According to Jane Allen, superintendent of Middlebury Community Schools, the primary use of the new facility, to be named “Stable Grounds,” will be as a mental health center using miniature horses and donkeys for equine therapy for MCS students K-12 with social-emotional issues.
Asked by commission member Philip Barker how the facility will be staffed and maintained, Allen noted that the facility will have a full-time equine therapist as well as an assistant who will staff the building at all times.
“And students will come and go all day long, and sometimes in the evening as well, depending,” Allen added of the facility. “And the animals themselves, they’ll be taken care of as well during the school day with the folks in the building itself.”
As for the programming to be offered through the facility, Allen said MCS will have access to and be able to utilize all of the various services available in Elkhart County that currently work with mental health, such as Ryan’s Place, Michiana Behavioral Health and Oaklawn.
“We are very excited to begin this project and offer our students the mental health services that they have not been able to access, and especially during the school day,” Allen said of the project. “This is something that isn’t done very often, and we feel like with the equine therapy, and the different setting, that they can learn how to build coping strategies and a lot of other methods for them to deal with their social-emotional issues as well. So we think it’s a very unique project, but it’s time for us to step up and help with mental health in our community.”
Serving as the new facility’s equine therapist will be current MCS guidance counselor Kori Cripe, who for the past several years has been operating a similar equine therapy operation out of her home.
“I’ve had my certification for almost eight years with equine therapy, and I’ve been working with kids on my own farm. So this is branching out, working with our schools hand-in-hand with families,” Cripe told the commission Thursday. “The animals will be taken care of by myself, of course using assistance from students for brushing, grooming, etc. And we’re also hoping to work with our high school kids to give them some leadership positions in caring for watering, cleaning out stalls, all that good stuff. I already have all the animals, and they’re already all certified nationally to be able to do the therapy work.”
As for the cost of the project, Allen noted that the current anticipated cost to get the facility up and running is right around $500,000, most of which will be provided through grants and/or gifts and donations from the community.
“Kori and I have talked about this for five years, and we’ve been working on funding for the project through the community to build the barn, and then Middlebury schools will run the barn. So the community is building it,” Allen said of the plan. “We’ve had some donations, and we’re looking for more. We’ve actually had a huge donor already, who donated $500,000 over a five-year period. So for us to get that start, we’re really excited about it. But we are definitely working toward getting it up and running, and we can’t wait. We’d love to be up and running by next fall, but that may have to be delayed. We’ll see what happens, depending on our donations.”