Jennifer Semach says 2022 will be a “make it or break it” year for Walkabout Farm therapeutic riding program.
Launched in 2018 on Spring Valley Road in Minden, the farm provides services through an equine-assisted learning model. It helps around 800 people with varying levels of developmental and physical disabilities, mental health issues and other considerations, annually.
The idea, Semach said, is to boost participants’ confidence, foster positive leadership qualities, enrich physical and mental health, and provide a safe space for personal growth.
Best of all, it’s free.
“We want everybody to have access to our services. We don’t want anybody to be left out,” Semach said. “My husband and I have put a lot of our own resources into making this happen.”
But there is a limit. With costs of $65,000-a-year, the operation is in a hole. Despite donations totalling $30,000 annually, Semach said she needs to secure additional funds to guarantee a long-term future.
Semach has applied for charitable status with the federal government. Due to the pandemic, what was a six-to-eight-month process no longer has a timeline. Semach applied in December 2020.
While she wouldn’t disclose how long the farm could continue to operate under current conditions, Semach admitted it was tough to see a future beyond the end of this year unless it receives charitable status.
In the meantime
Haliburton resident Jennifer Korpela will hold an online auction March 4 and 5 to raise money for the farm. This will be her second year doing so, having raised $3,000 through a similar event in 2021. “I would love to surpass our $7,000 goal this year,” Korpela said.
She discovered Walkabout in 2020, and said it’s been a godsend for her 13-year-old daughter, Kendra.
“She was really struggling with the effects of being isolated from her peers. We were watching our happy, funny, energetic girl languish and I was searching for something to reignite her spark,” Korpela said. “Walkabout Farm was the perfect option for us. Jennifer’s passion and energy is contagious … Our daughter was immediately hooked and we were able to see the light come back into her eyes after just a few visits.”
To view the online auction, search ‘Walkabout Farm Therapeutic Riding Assoc. Spring FUNdraiser’ on Facebook.
The ‘science’ behind it
Semach was working in a residential treatment facility for at-risk youth when the idea came to launch a therapeutic program based around animals.
The farm has nine horses that visitors can pet, ride and help take care of. Some clients prefer to walk around parts of the 100-plus acre property, while others like to get their hands dirty and help out with chores.
“Services are tailor-made to match each participant’s interests. We’re very individualized,” Semach said. “There is nothing else like this in Haliburton County.”
She has started working with organizations such as Community Living Trent Highlands, Point in Time, Trillium Lakelands District School Board and private doctors’ clinics to spread the word, which has led to further growth.
“We’ve seen an increase [in numbers] tenfold during the pandemic … Kids are struggling so badly with their mental health. There’s been such a negative effect on kids being withheld from school, being isolated from friends, and from family members,” Semach said. “More kids, younger and younger, have had major anxiety issues that have surfaced, dealing with depression, self-harm. So mental health is at the forefront of what we do here. The farm acts as a release, and it’s great to see someone coming out of their shell and blossoming after a few visits,” she added.
A life-changing difference
Bethan McCutcheon has been sending her sons, 18-year-old Tecwyn and 16-year-old Tathan, for four years. The boys suffer from Angelman Syndrome, a complex disease that often renders patients non-verbal and can cause seizures, and both sensory and mobility issues.
“Walkabout Farm has provided so much to our family … When we started this, Tathan would get overwhelmed by the smells of the farm and the sight of the cows. He would be gagging and throwing up. Now, fast forward a few years, and he and Jennifer are two peas in a pod. My sons ask every day if it’s Walkabout Farm day,” McCutcheon said.
Tecwyn and Tathan have both been able to earn high-school credits while volunteering at the farm, and have taken learned skills and applied them to their day-to-day life.
“If the farm were to close, my family would absolutely feel the loss. Walkabout Farm is our lifeline. There is no other space that would replace Walkabout Farm, where my teenagers can go and have all their needs met,” McCutcheon said. “My kids are thriving because of Walkabout Farm.”