Chopper the Biker Dog, San Diego’s Beloved Celebrity

If you live in the San Diego vicinity, no doubt at some point you’ve seen a little Boston Terrier dressed up as a biker in a black leather vest, biker goggles, sporting a “doo rag”, bandana around his neck, and riding a miniature motorcycle that looks like a pint-sized Harley Davidson. He’s always with his “dad”, Mark Shaffer, a man with a heart so big, and so kind, one wonders if he wasn’t born with two. Mark and his dog, Chopper, define the term “earth angel.” They do more good for people in one year than most people do in a lifetime.

Mark and Chopper’s story began eight years ago, when Mark acquired him as a three-month-old puppy. A year before, Mark had lost his first Boston Terrier, Bandit, to cancer. Losing Bandit, who had been his biker buddy, hit him hard. Once he healed, Chopper came into his life. Though Chopper was a cute little tike, Mark wasn’t sure if he would take to the miniature motorcycle that Bandit used to ride. A month later, a local organization called The Nice Guys, invited Mark and Chopper to their annual Christmas party where they give out gifts and food to people in need. Mark used to attend every year with Bandit. He had no idea how Chopper would react to the bike, if he would even get on it.

“I took Chopper and the little motorcycle, the goggles and his little Harley T-shirt, put him on the motorcycle and he rode that little motorcycle just like he knew what to do,” Mark remembers. “It was his first time and he never tried to hop off. Who knows, maybe Bandit’s spirit was riding with him.”

Mark knew then and there that he and Chopper could continue what he started with Bandit.

Initially, Chopper rode Bandit’s bike, then some fans from Florida came to town and asked to meet Chopper. The husband was an engineer and wanted to create a new bike, just for Chopper. The man returned home, bought a little bike, took it apart and rebuilt it to look like Mark’s Harley, all at his own expense. He customized the paint, added LED lights, a sophisticated remote-control system, and better steering control. It was going to cost $800 to ship the bike to San Diego. Not to be deterred, Mark and the engineer raised the funds online to pay the cost.

The two pals attend about a dozen fundraising events a year to support their favorite charities. Events like the Walk to End Alzheimer’s, the Breast Cancer Walk, Tip a Cop, the Special Olympics Law Enforcement Torch Run, where cops carry a torch from Chula Vista to Los Angeles, the Law Enforcement Teddy Bear Drive for Rady Children’s Hospital, and the Hornblower Cruise to help raise money and blankets for the Helen Woodward Animal Shelter.  That sounds like a lot, but that’s just a part of what they do. When they’re not attending events, they make about 30 visits annually to patients in local hospitals, nursing homes, memory care centers and hospice, including visits to our local veterans. As a certified therapy dog, Chopper brings smiles to patients’ faces when he rides his mini motorcycle into their rooms, dressed in his leather duds. Once the chuckles die down, he gets onto the patients’ beds, curls up and snuggles with them, imbuing them with therapeutic doggie love.

Chopper has fans everywhere, especially in the law enforcement community. Check out the video of the day Chopper got stopped by a San Diego policeman here. The two buddies have an affinity for law enforcement and the military; if Mark hears about a need, he and Chopper make it a point to visit before anyone asks. One particular law enforcement officer story stands out in Mark’s memory.

“A deputy sheriff and his wife from Oregon were vacationing in Mexico when they stepped out of their hotel and were run over by a car,” Mark says. “When the police arrived, the wife was in such bad shape they covered her with a sheet, signifying she was dead. They soon discovered she was alive, barely. The couple was transported to a trauma unit in San Diego.”

As soon as Mark learned of the tragedy by the Eugene Sheriff’s Department, Mark scheduled his first visit. The husband had already been air-lifted back to Eugene, while the wife stayed hospitalized in San Diego. Chopper and Mark began visiting her as often as possible, Chopper curling up next to her on the bed. When they arrived for their second visit, the woman’s brother met them in the hospital lobby and told Mark that she suffered so much brain damage that she wouldn’t remember them when they entered the room. However, when Chopper rolled in on his motorcycle, the woman pulled herself up off her pillow and said, “Chopper, buddy!”

“All her relatives in the room broke out in tears, because it proved that her brain was healing and her cognition was coming back. Chopper gave them hope that she would recover,” he says.

The day Mark learned that the wife was going home, he called San Diego Police Chief Shelley Zimmerman, who gave her blessing to do whatever Mark planned to help support the Deputy’s wife. Mark arranged to have six San Diego police officers and two California Highway Patrol officers, escort her from her hospital room to the waiting ambulance. Once secured inside, the Highway Patrol escorted the ambulance to the airport with their lights going all the way.

“We wanted her and her family to leave San Diego with ‘respect’ and something positive,” Mark says. “She was life flighted home with doctors on board.”

Two years later Mark and Chopper took a trip up the coastline, stopping to visit patients in memory care centers, hospitals, veterans, police officers and nursing homes along the way. The trip ended in Eugene, Oregon where after two years, he and Chopper were reunited over dinner with the now retired deputy sheriff, his wife and their family.

“It was a very emotional reunion,” Mark recalls.

Then he received a call from a local television station telling him that a man phoned the station because he heard that Chopper was in town and the man’s daughter wanted to meet the canine celebrity. The station directed Mark to the school where they found the entire student body waiting for them in front. He learned that about the time the deputy sheriff and his wife were injured, the girl had been given a class assignment to write about a hero, but it couldn’t be an entertainment celebrity. The girl had heard about what Chopper had been doing for the wife of their local Deputy and wrote her school paper about Chopper.

While that was one of the big ones, Mark could fill an encyclopedia with stories about what Chopper’s presence has meant to people, how his very being comforts and soothes like a balm. From hospitalized law enforcement officers injured in the line of duty, to family members in nursing homes grieving the loss of a loved one, to patients in memory care centers whose faces light up when they see the quirky little dog in biker leathers ride in on his customized motorcycle, Chopper makes an impact wherever he goes.

In San Diego, Chopper is more than a local celebrity, he has built a world-wide fandom through social media, (over 117,000 followers on Facebook and growing) and not just because he’s adorable in his biker outfit and sports a biker-dude persona. More importantly, he is known for his unflagging work ethic and the immeasurable hours of volunteering in the community, never asking for anything in return. It’s easy to get caught up in Chopper the legend. After all, he is really, really, cute and as sweet as a dog can be. Sometimes people don’t realize, or they forget that the extraordinary little dog in leather biker duds is one half of a duo. A selfless man and his selfless dog who spend their free time doing good. And if that isn’t the best example of The Goodness Principle, I don’t know what is. I’ll tell you this much, San Diego is proud to call them our own.

Want to learn more about Chopper? Be sure to visit his Facebook page here,  and his website here.

Making a Difference on Make a Difference Day

Those who regularly read this blog know that when I find a person or an organization “doing good” I write about it. I stumbled across Make a Difference Day. Sounds nice, but what is it, you may wonder? Well, it’s a movement, it’s an opportunity to do-something-good to make our world a better place, and who doesn’t want that? It’s also one of the biggest annual single service days nationwide. It started in February of 1992 and has evolved into a national event held the fourth Saturday every October. In this, its 26th year, MDD will take place on October 28th, just a couple of months away. People come together from around the country with one common goal – to better the lives of others.

The point of Make a Difference Day demonstrates that everyone and anyone, regardless of age or circumstance or background, can make an impact on their community. Each October, individuals and groups get involved and they indeed make a big difference in their communities. Some are big, some are small, but they all matter. So what kind of things do people do to make a difference? It’s simple, but really, really important stuff. Acts that truly improve the lives of those around us. Here are a few stories from the Make a Difference Day website that made my heart sing:

Have you heard of the kids’ book, Loukoumi’s Good Deeds? In 2009 the book inspired children to do good, just like one of the characters, a cuddly lamb. That same year, the book’s author, New York lawyer, Nick Katsoris, used the book to launch a Make a Difference Day Project. Ultimately 1,000 children joined in and raised $10,000 that went to St. Jude’s Children’s Research Hospital. That inspired Mr. Katsoris to write more Loukoumi books. By Make a Difference Day 2013, the volunteers grew to 40,000, and the year after that – 50,000 kids helped 100,000 people. I particularly love what Mr. Katsoris said about his books inspiring kids to do good:

“The long-term impact of Make a Difference Day is that teaching children at a young age that doing good deeds can be fun is something that they can carry with them for the rest of their lives.”

In New Albany, Indiana, Belinda Jacobi, a member of the Moving Forward limb loss support group at the Southern Indiana Rehabilitation Hospital saw an opportunity to help a larger population – their local homeless. They knew that frostbite is a leading cause of amputation among the homeless. With more than 6,000 homeless in their community, including 1,200 children, they decided to collect socks to help keep their feet warm and hopefully prevent amputation. Members of the group placed collection boxes at doctors’ offices, the hospital and a fire station. By Make a Difference Day 2016 they collected 864 pairs of socks that they donated to the Salvation Army to distribute.

Daniel Soupiset of San Angelo, Texas was responsible for helping to save dozens of animals from being euthanized. He organized a project to increase pet adoptions from San Angelo’s animal shelter, where sadly, about 75% of its animals end up being put down. In 2014 during the month leading up to MDD Daniel and 25 volunteers raised funds for his “Canine and Kitty Coupons” project. On Oct. 25, Daniel and many volunteers set up in front of the shelter and handed out coupons to cover the adoption cost. They didn’t just raise over $4,500, they saved the lives of 57 animals who went onto their Forever Homes.

Maggie Leach, a Minnesota 12-year-old learned a big lesson when her family lived in a hotel for six months while their home was under construction. She discovered that many homeless families could not afford to do their laundry more than once a month. Laundry seems like something minimal, but to someone who must choose between food and doing laundry, it’s a no-brainer, food will always win that contest. But it has its consequences. Not being able to do laundry, and having to wear odiferous clothes over and over, can greatly affect self-esteem and one’s dignity. Maggie figured that out and decided to help by collecting laundry soap and quarters for families living in shelters. On last year’s Made a Difference Day Maggie collected $810 in quarters (81 rolls), 21 baskets of laundry supplies and a pack of diapers. Her effort assisted numerous families living at Lewis House, a shelter for families fleeing domestic violence.

How Make a Difference Day started is really cool and all because of our crazy calendar. When Leap Day fell on a Saturday in 1992, Gannett’s USA WEEKEND magazine suggested to their readers to spend their extra 24 hours doing something good for others. Pretty simple, right? Absolutely and the response was stupendous; it’s been going on ever since. Then in late 2014 sponsorship of Make a Difference Day shifted to USA TODAY and Gannett’s portfolio of newspapers, TV stations and digital properties. The following year, Gannett’s broadcasting and digital businesses spun off to form TEGNA Inc. Lest you think this is just one more corporate spinoff, it’s not. Tegna awards $140,000 annually to 14 honorees who are chosen by a panel of judges. Award winners designate their charity of choice to receive the grant money. Kinda a double-good, don’t you think?

Starting a service project on your own is easy. Projects can be as simple as cleaning up your local park with your family and friends or hosting a lemonade stand and donating the proceeds to charity. The ask is simple – just do something good for somebody else. Submit your project in advance at the MDD website and you could win a $10,000 grant for your project’s charity. If Make a Difference Day sounds like something you’d like to do, click here to find out more on  their website. Together we can all make a difference.

 

 

 

A Simple Act Makes a Difference

Sometimes it’s easy to become complacent whether it be in your own community or beyond. Many people question if anything they do can truly make a difference and often, assuming that they can’t, don’t even try. If you find yourself falling into this rut, take a look at what two women are doing to bring joy to veterans and active service members.

Bonnie Aker and Kathi Henderson of Albuquerque, New Mexico are quilters with big hearts, huge hearts actually. They don’t just make quilts; they make quilts with a purpose. Since 2011 they have made 45 Quilts of Valor, 25 of which have been donated to veterans on dialysis at the VA Hospital in Albuquerque.

What is a Quilt of Valor? It’s an organization full of volunteers who make quilts for veterans and service members touched by war. As of this writing QOV volunteers have made and donated 151,768 quilts. Just to give you an idea of what this entails, most quilts without a lot of complicated design take 25-45 hours to complete (some longer, some shorter). Averaging 35 hours per quilt that comes out to over 5.3 million hours! Now that’s a lot of heart. You must be wondering how all these people came together to make these quilts for our deserving military.

To give you a little background, the Quilts of Valor Foundation began in 2003 while founder Catherine Roberts’ son Nat was deployed in Iraq. She had a dream that her son was battling war demons and in the next scene he was wrapped in a quilt, his demons at bay. She knew what she had to do and QOV was born. The organization awarded its first quilt in November 2003 to a young soldier from Minnesota who had lost his leg in Iraq. From there it grew, went viral in internet-speak.

Fast forward to 2011 when Kathi and Bonnie got involved. They learned that Sue Wolf of the QoV Foundation put out a call for quilts. That was all the impetus they needed to start sewing. Several of the quilts they made were for what Bonnie and Kathi call “woodworkers”, veterans who were having a hard time with issues ranging from depression to alcoholism, vets who seemed to come “out of the woodwork” when presented with a handmade quilt.

Several quilts stand out in their collective memory. When they heard about Marine SSGT Andrew Saiz, awarded a Silver Star, who was killed with six of his MARSOC Raiders 5 team members in a training helicopter crash off the coast of North Carolina in March 2015, they made one for his parents.

Another quilt took on personal significance. They designed and personalized a quilt to honor a close friend, one of Albuquerque’s true heroes, John Bode, who was awarded an Air Force Cross for valor in Vietnam.  They created a “T-shirt Quilt”, with pictures, logos and airplanes depicted on the shirts. John Bode is a pretty stoic guy, but even he couldn’t keep his eyes from welling up when given the quilt that documented his years in Vietnam.

        

And then there is “Ted’s Quilt”, that will probably stand out as one of the most significant quilts the women ever made. It was conceived after a trip to Spartanburg, South Carolina in September 2016. John Bode received a call that one of his buddies from his Air Force fighter pilot training days over 60 years ago was going through a rough patch. As soon as he spoke with his old friend, Ted, he knew he had to fly east.  You see Ted had been captured and imprisoned in the notorious “Hanoi Hilton” (yeah, THAT Hanoi Hilton); he was a POW for 6-1/2 years in what can only be described as a hell hole. It was Ted’s imprisonment that compelled John to volunteer to go to Vietnam. With a history and bond like that it’s no wonder that John sprung into action when he heard his buddy was having a hard time. Kathi and her husband, Air Force Colonel (ret), Wally Henderson flew with John and his wife, Diane, to South Carolina.

At his home Ted showed the group around his “I-Love-Me Room”, the study that his dear wife Ruth had decorated for him with all of Ted’s medals, pictures of all the jets Ted had flown in his Air Force career, all of his unit patches, all of his commendations and achievement awards, and his pictures of being released as a POW. After Ruth’s passing the room took on even greater meaning.

The tour of Ted’s study haunted Kathi. She couldn’t forget Ruth’s careful placement of each item and the love that permeated that room. It was as though Ruth took up residence in the study. The moment Kathi returned from the trip to Spartanburg, she knew exactly what she needed to do and began to design a personalized quilt for Ted. It had to be a T-Shirt quilt, though different than John Bode’s.  It had to have all the elements that Ruth had included in Ted’s study, not an easy task. But given the wonders of the internet she was able to find a number of websites that offered military T-Shirts including all the military jets Ted had flown – the F-86 Sabre, the F-100 Super-Sabre, the F-104 Starfighter, the F-105 Thunderchief, as well as the POW/MIA logo, a map of Vietnam, and a “TAC Patch” shirt. First Kathi made fabric transfers of pictures that she had taken in South Carolina and incorporated them into the quilt design. She found two of Ted’s unit patches on eBay – the 13th and the 44th – to appliqué onto the quilt as a finishing touch. She framed the design with fabric featuring grey pilot wings on a red background; the sashing (strips between the blocks) displayed a blue sky with clouds. She even found US Air Force licensed fabric for the back.  After Kathi completed the top and made it into a “quilt sandwich” with the batting and backing fabric, Bonnie machine-quilted it with a military jet pattern on her 12-foot long-arm sewing machine.  Kathi hand-bound the quilt, sewed a label onto the back and appliquéd on the two patches.

Now this is where serendipity chimes into the story. On the following Monday, out of the blue, Ted emailed John and Kathi a letter he had written to Ruth when he was a POW; it was dated Christmas 1970. All it said was, “After four years. No end in sight. Ted”.  Kathi felt like the email was asking for some response, though she wasn’t sure what could be said. She wrote back, “Your letter from 46 years ago touched my heart. Is this your first Christmas without your beloved Ruth?” His reply, “It’s the second. She passed away Dec 16 last year. Ted”.  This unexpected exchange of emails happened on December 13th.

Suddenly everything fell into place. Kathi said, “The quilt positively, absolutely, unmistakenly HAD to be delivered on Friday, December 16th, the first anniversary of Ruth’s passing.”

After Ted opened the package on that Friday, the delivery right on schedule, he wrote, “I am amazed, flabbergasted, dumbstruck. I could not believe what I was unfolding! What wonderful workmanship. My sister came over later and took  pictures. She wants to hang it on one of my walls. I said not until I spend the rest of the winter keeping warm with it. You are right. I can feel the warmth and love that comes with it. PS. Ruth loves it too.”

Kathi replied, “Ted, I believe our visit in September, the conception of a QoV for you, the design, the timing — were all meant to be. Call it the work of angels; call it kismet; call it karma; call it quantum entanglement. It was just meant to be. I know Ruth loves it…”

Talk about making a difference. So the next time you think you can’t do something to brighten the life of another, think again. The simplest act can make the greatest impact in ways you can never imagine. Kudos to Kathi and Bonnie for keeping the spirit of giving back alive.

For more information on the Quilts of Valor Foundation please visit them here.

Hailey, the Extraordinary Kid Caregiver

Hailey 3

There are good people everywhere, and then there are remarkable people like Hailey, who takes care of her grandmother who suffers from Alzheimer’s. Not so unusual? Actually, it’s quite unusual because Hailey is nine years old and began caring for her beloved grandmother at the age of four. She adores her grandmother and has gone to extraordinary lengths to give her the best life possible.

What you may ask can a child do for an aging grandparent with such a challenging disease? Well, let me tell you. This child, who is as insightful as someone 50 years her senior, makes her grandmother’s world an easier place to live in, and one where she knows she is loved, deeply loved. How does Hailey get through, how does she communicate with her?

Hailey 5“I manage it by doing puzzles with my Grandma,” Hailey says. “Even if we don’t solve it exactly right it still makes Grandma happy.”

Hailey’s mom, Emma, says that her mother is still able to speak and she still recognizes them. That’s a big deal when it comes to dementia; there is nothing so heartbreaking as your loved one not knowing who you are. Emma says they are grateful, while acknowledging that there are other behaviors associated with the disease that can be difficult at times, such as frequent repeating. Anyone who has spent time around someone with Alzheimer’s knows that repeating is one of the more taxing aspects of the disease. It can be incredibly frustrating. Leave it to a nine year-old to come up with an effective tactic.

Hailey explains, “When Grandma keeps repeating herself I usually talk about a different Hailey 1subject, I say words she can’t repeat, like I say ‘I love you, Grandma’. Or I ask her a question.”

As her mother plunged into dementia Emma looked, but didn’t find any books for kids that would lend support; books that might help them cope. When it became quite apparent that Hailey had figured out a few innovative ways on her own Emma encouraged Hailey to create something that would help other kids navigate the caregiving waters.

“I started thinking that I needed a blog to help kids, so that they know they’re not alone and show them ways that they could care for their loved ones,” Hailey says. “On April 5th it was published.”

Emma set up the blog for Hailey, who took it over. She uses the hunt and peck system and for smaller entries she completely types it on her own. Emma, a teacher, proofreads and edits if necessary. Sometimes Hailey dictates entries to Emma who types it for her. Emma emphasizes that Hailey definitely does most of it on her own. Hailey comes up with posts, such as her caregiving tips and strategies. She’s even featured her friend, Katie, as a guest blogger. The blog has become a passion for Hailey and for her mother, too. The following post that Emma wrote on Hailey’s blog explains why it was so important to launch the blog and the new community it is building:

According to the National Alliance for Caregiving there are at least 1.3 million children between the ages of 8 and 18 who are caregivers. Hailey realized that children can make a big difference in the world. Unfortunately, Hailey and I had difficulty finding other kids who are going through the same thing as Hailey. There were times, when Hailey would have loved to know that there were other kids “out there”; who are also going through similar experiences. As the saying goes, “necessity is the mother of invention”, so Hailey created the type of support group that she would have loved for herself. Her goal is for kids to have a platform to share ideas, offer tips, and get advice. She shares her experiences, to model for other kids.  Kid Caregivers is in its infancy, since the seed was launched in February (2016). I am excited to report that there are readers from: India, Africa, Greece, Germany, Israel, Russia, UK and the United States. Clearly caregiving is a worldwide issue and for children a very sensitive one. Her goal is to let other kids know that they are not alone. Hopefully, her dream of reaching “hundreds” of kids will become a reality.

Hailey 4Hailey’s efforts don’t stop there. She is the Assistant Director of Puzzles to Remember, an organization that provides puzzles to seniors in various types of facilities. And then there’s a prototype she’s working on called the Memory Walker Alert. Not long ago her grandmother forgot to use her walker one day, fell, suffered a subdural hematoma and broke her hip. Hailey reports that her grandmother had to have surgery and is doing much better. But the incident disturbed Hailey; she wanted to figure out a way to get people with dementia to use their walkers. Emma told Hailey about a device called a proximity sensor. Though not an engineer, Hailey is working on a dual-sensor system where one sensor would attach to the walker and the other would attach to the senior. If the senior steps too far away from the walker it would give off a voice command “Walker! Use your walker!” and a sound would beep image source. As Emma is quick to point out, Hailey does not know how to build the circuitry, but she understands the mechanics behind it. She’s already sketched out her idea.

Hailey 2“As the adults, her father and I are trying to figure out how it can be done,” Emma says. “She came up with the seed of the idea. She told me ‘we need to come up with some kind of alarm system, Mommy, so Grandma doesn’t leave the walker.’ We showed her various videos of proximity sensors and she’s been working on it” Emma says proudly.

At the center of Hailey’s mission is heart. A big heart. Most children are content to play and be a kid. Hailey is a different kind of soul. Of course she is a kid, and does all the usual kid things, but she also has a rare vision not often seen in a nine year-old. That vision means both making life better for her grandmother and helping other children, showing them that they’re not alone in caring for someone they love. If her blog accomplishes that one task, if it helps just one child, she will be elated, because all the effort will have been worth it.

For more information visit Hailey’s Kid Caregivers blog and her FaceBook page.

Be sure to watch the music video Stay for a Little While. Written by David Light and Bakhus Saba, it reflects on how children connect with dementia patients and features several photos of Hailey and her grandma.

Creating Horse Whisperers

VR Small girl and horseHorses: What majestic, elegant creatures of beauty and grace. And in thundering herds, what power and strength. To be able to communicate with a horse eye-to-eye and with a whisper, using only slight movements to direct motion, demonstrates a gift of true mutual trust. Now, imagine being a child who has had more than their share of problems or hardships, looking up at a large horse and being able develop that relationship and mastery. Talk about a confidence builder!

Okay—a Horse Whisperer is technically “a horse trainer who adopts a sympathetic view of the motives, needs, and desires of the horse, based on modern equine psychology”. It takes years of experience to attain that level of expertise, and we all know that is beyond the scope of a young child. Perhaps the terms “friend, buddy or pal” are more appropriate. In any event, learning to bond with a horse comes with lasting life lessons.

There is a place where kids are experiencing that important outcome: Victory Ranch, Inc. in San Jose, California works with kids 8 to 16 years old to help them grow and develop life skills. These are neglected or abused kids, some suffering from depression or addiction, perhaps from broken homes or live in foster care. Some are kids who could use a helping hand and some positive goodness to keep them out of the juvenile justice system. In general, the emphasis is working with disadvantaged, under-served, at-risk, neglected, abused, and low-income youth, that include foster, adopted, and siblings of kids with life-threatening illnesses. Oh, did I mention—there’s no charge for the kids participating in the program?

VR Doug instructing with horseDoug Hutten founded Victory Ranch, Inc. in 2006. He started riding horses at age 6, and his adult equestrian experience spans over forty years which includes avid trail riding, competing, stable management, training, volunteering with special needs organizations, writing for Western Horseman Magazine, working with various equestrian Search & Rescue Teams in two states, organizing and managing a PRCA-sanctioned event, and Charity-Celebrity Trail Rides. In other words, he knows his way around horses.

VR Grooming

He has been involved numerous Horseman Associations and charitable organizations for a long time, giving back to those who need assistance. When he witnessed the great number of troubled kids in the Bay Area, he put his knowledge of horses into focus, and knew he could put the two together to create positive behavior changes. Doug realized that kids talk to dogs; if he could get them to feel safe and open up by talking with horses, only good would come of it. He was right.

One success story is Nick Campbell, now 20 and a student at UC Davis. He was just going into high school in 2009 with a lot of extracurricular time on his hands when he entered the program. “My main job was to help muck out the stalls, groom the horses (and bathe them when the weather permitted), exercise them and keep them in practice with Doug’s style of horse training. It’s very important to be constantly making sure that they know their roles and how to behave on the ground, as well as while being ridden.”

The Kids & Horses Education Program (KHEP) is a 5-week after-school and weekend education program which creates positive behavioral changes in almost every child enrolled. Participants engage in tasks with horses that are fun and facilitate communication and teamwork. The horses themselves encourage cooperation and creative thinking, and are capable, sentient mental health team members providing non-judgmental feedback to the kids.

The staff members are certified in utilizing horses in therapy, and when a child needs special help, the Ranch also offers Equine Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP) utilizing qualified mental health/clinical professionals. The kids are continually monitored by staff who employ program evaluation, questionnaires, and applied observational field research to help measure their progress.

VR kids muckingDoes it work? Oh, yeah, and very well. Kids learn that they can influence something larger than themselves in a positive way, making them feel better about themselves. The conclusions validate that the goals of the KHEP Program (improved life skills – self-confidence, team work, social skills, personal achievement, focus/follow directions, communication skills, and knowledge of horses) are improved/achieved in the majority of students.

As Nick says, “I became a much harder worker because of VR, and a lot better at time management.”

And when a child graduates from the program with a certificate, they are designated “Buckaroos” (467 total graduates to date) and are invited to return to help mentor the younger first-time participants in future sessions. Not only is it fun to help out, but the positive messages are reinforced while developing leadership skills.

Returning as a Buckaroo, Nick recounts, “During the programs for the foster children, my job was to support Doug and Pat as a kind of teaching aide. I had gone through the program as an observer, so I knew the structure. I helped teach the skills the program tries to impart to the kids, and made sure that everyone was kept in the group. The kids were not allowed to be with the horses by themselves, a volunteer or leader had to be with them at all times, especially when they got to be on the horses.”

What’s next for Victory Ranch? With as many children in the Bay Area who really need the kind of positive help the Ranch provides, the natural course is to increase the number of sessions to accommodate as many as they can. They also want to start a program for the Horsemanship Merit Badge for the Boy Scouts, Varsity Scouts and Venturers. And then there’s the planned expansion into the critical need of serving returning Veterans suffering PTSD. By mirroring the efforts and success they’ve had with the children, translating the horse therapy to the Veterans is sure to have a profound effect.

VR Doug instructing with harness

Would Nick Campbell recommend Victory Ranch to parents of deserving kids? “Definitely, seeing the way that shy, reserved kids start the program and end up with friends and skills that allow them to be social is amazing. A lot of the kids can’t work in group because of shyness or anxiety in the beginning, but they really open up through working with the horses and with other kids in their situations.”

VR Group ShotOf course operating as a non-profit, funding the Victory Ranch programs has always been challenging. Fortunately several foundations and corporate sponsors of note have seen the benefits their support has made (see the website for their list). An endeavor that includes 23 staff and board members (mostly volunteers), the need is constant to make sure that there are enough funds available to feed the horses, pay the rent and provide the free service they do so well. And to ‘take it to the next level’ with additional services, fundraising activities takes a bit of their time and attention. You can learn more about Victory Ranch by visiting the website. If you can help the Buckeroos in any way, I’m sure they would appreciate your interest.

By the way, although they call the graduates “Buckaroos” I prefer the term “Horse Whisperers”. It better demonstrates the magic that happens at Victory Ranch.

 

The Jelly Girls

When inconcJelly Girls Marjorie and Debbieeivable tragedies hit two friends just months apart, it was their art that brought them through their shared grief and back into the light. Silk painting artist Marjorie Pezzoli’s 19 year-old daughter died in an accidental drowning at La Jolla Cove in January of 2013.
Five months before, the boyfriend of glass artist Debbie Solan committed suicide; Debbie found him. Where do you go after that? How do you move on and get our life back? Can you ever really get your life back as you knew it?

Marjorie and Debb were already working on a fundraiser, Palette to Palette, sponsored by the San Diego Visual Arts Network (SDVAN) and San Diego Synergy Art Foundation (SAF). Proceeds benefitted an arts education program at Kimbrough Elementary School, in collaboration with Feeding America San Diego and Young Audiences, as well as ongoing programs of SDVAN and SAF. All very noble, and a distraction, but hard to see the good when tragedy has just taken your joy away. Marjorie and Debbie powered through it as best they could for the greater good, to improve the lives of others.

The diversion of another project probably helped too. They were deep into Sea Changes, part of “The DNA of Creativity”, an idea fostered by SDVAN founder, Patricia Frischer. The endeavor brought together the arts and science, usually an incongruent alliance. Not so, in this case. The four projects sponsored by SDVAN involved 40 artists, scientists and educators, all bent on finding ways to showcase art and science together. Each team’s mission was to cultivate an understanding of issues affecting the ecosystem and to prompt innovative, positive change or at least get people to think about the issue. A tall order I’d say.

Creative minds that they are, Debbie and Marjorie Jellies in Santa Cruztook the idea to a whole new level. They wanted to address the issue of plastic pollution in the oceans and bays. I suppose you just have to be an artist to come up with what was eventually dubbed “Jellies Forever”, a brilliant exhibit in the Museum of Monterey using donated plastic grocery bags, painters’ tarps and salvaged plastic wrap. Their exhibit featured life-like jelly fish hanging from the ceiling. Life-like until you took a closer look and realized you were looking at plastic. Though they intended to install six to eight jellies, they ended up spending two days installing 33 and along the way Debbie and Marjorie were dubbed the “Jelly Girls”, a name that stuck.

Why creaJelly hanging in the museumte plastic jelly fish? If you’ve spent any time at the beaches or on the water you know how sickening it is to see the water teeming with garbage. Many people don’t realize that much of this muck lays underwater plaguing our oceans and strangling sea life; we see a minuscule portion that floats on top. It’s ugly, it’s an infestation. The exhibit ran from March 2014 until early August of that year. The “jellies” as they have come to be known, can still be seen on display at the Santa Cruz / Monterey Bay Exploration Center as well as in Fusionglass Co, a La Mesa gallery, owned by Debbie Solan and artist Paul Fernandes.

But lest you think Fusionglass is a typical gallery, think again. Started in 2007 the little gallery holds special events year round and sells Marjorie’s beautiful painted silks and Debbie and Paul’s glass work, each piece a true work of art. And classes, lots and lots of classes, such as a series called Ladies Night Out where students learn to make their own stunning glass jewelry. (Note to self: gotta sign up for one of those classes.) Fusionglass was a bonafide lifesaver for Marjorie.

“Fusionglass saved my life,” Marjorie says. “This place kept me going.”

Which brings us back to the question of how a person moves on after going through an unthinkable tragedy? Debbie says that when a person goes through a something horrific that it’s essential to concentrate on Post Traumatic Growth, PTG, not the stress of PTSD. “You find a new way of living after you’ve experienced a tragedy,” she says, alluding to what she and Marjorie endured. “You choose how to deal with it, how you get through it.”

It’s still hard for them, how could it Jellies on the Ceilingnot be? No doubt their bond and strong friendship has given them the resiliency to muscle through the emotional and psychological difficulties together, to the next chapter of their lives. Marjorie states that going from one creative endeavor to the next motivates her to get through her days, weeks and months, allowing her to function and to live. She recently received a certificate from the Teaching Artists Institute; now she teaches art to small children, and when she can, connects her lessons to the work of the ocean and the Jelly Girls because the Jelly Girls has become about more than an exhibit.

These days the two dynamic women say that the term has evolved into defining someone who gives back to the community, who creates beauty from materials on hand and who inspires others to care. In other words, thinks outside of herself, thinks of the good. Considering what these two women went through, it’s remarkable that they were able to pick themselves up and find a way out of the sorrow and melancholy that accompanies grief. They did it through their art, through their friendship and through finding a path back to the light when life threw them one of the worst curve balls imaginable.

For more information on them, contact Marjorie, Debbie and the Jelly Girls by clicking on their names to link you directly.