Disabled Children Benefit Physically and Emotionally
I’ve spent the last two years traveling up and down Alabama’s highways, and as a method to pass the monotony of passing mile markers and the never-ending asphalt, I often take note of the scenery around me. Whether it’s an unusual building or scenic farmstead, I have found myself taking interest in these scenes and structures.
One that always puzzled me is just outside the Talladega city limits on Alabama Highway 21. This "big white barn" surrounded by white fencing sparked my interest each time I passed. "What exactly goes on in that barn," I would wonder as I watched it fade in my rearview mirror. And then, without too much ado, I would forget about it until my next drive along Highway 21. Little did I know, I would soon find myself standing in that arena amazed by what I saw.
In November 2008, I was asked to call Tim Greene as a contact for this story. We set up a time to meet and as he began giving me directions, I realized his instructions led me to the "big white barn" I’d pondered so many times.
A few days later, I made my first visit to the "barn," better known as the Marianna Greene Henry Arena, or MGH Arena. I was met by Tim, the arena coordinator, and as he began to explain the purpose of the arena, I realized there was so much more to this building than I could have ever imagined simply seeing it from the highway.
In the early 80s Tim’s sister, Marianna Greene Henry began volunteering at Special Equestrian Inc., a therapeutic horseback riding system in the Birmingham area. With her love of horses and a desire to help special needs children, Henry was an asset to the program. Although a job took her and her husband to Kentucky, Henry never lost her foresight to help these children.
A few years later, Henry convinced her father, who was nearing retirement and anxious to begin farming, to start a therapeutic horseback riding program, or hippotherapy program, on his Talladega area farm to accommodate the special needs children of the Alabama Institute for the Deaf and Blind (AIDB).
But before the program was established, Henry was diagnosed with a heart disease called cardiomyopathy, which can only be cured by transplant. Sadly in the spring of 1989, she passed away during the transplant operation.
Her parents, Pat and Marilyn Greene, decided to honor their daughter’s wishes and develop the therapeutic riding program. Although the program had humble beginnings serving just eight children with a few horses and a small riding ring, it quickly grew to become more than they could have imagined.
"We realized we either needed to drop this idea or make it huge," Tim, Henry’s younger brother, said. "We decided to follow through with it and the program just got bigger and bigger. Now we’re the largest in the world that services deaf, blind and multi-disabled children."
The program is now housed in that "big white barn," a 39, 000-square-foot arena where 350 AIDB children are provided physical therapy on horseback. Using this form of therapy, these special needs children are provided recreational activities like horseback-riding classes and trail rides.
Tim was quick to point out that for most of these children, traditional physical therapy was a dreaded part of their day. But, through the riding programs available at MGH Arena, they’re able to get their therapy in a way both enjoyable and effective. He added he’s seen many of the children make improvements in balance, motor skills, self esteem, verbal skills and confidence while exercising static muscles. While riding is the predominate activity at the arena, students are introduced to many other areas of horsemanship.
"They’re able to participate in all aspects of horsemanship," Tim said. "Many of them are able to help in the barn: saddling and tacking their own horses, brushing the horses down and feeding them after they’ve finished riding."
Another interesting feature of the arena is the Ability Room which helps prepare the children to ride the horses.
"We’ve also built an ability room, which is much like a traditional therapy room, but we’ve made it very horse-oriented," Tim said. "Everything in there is all about horses—balancing, pretending they’re on a horse. This loosens them up before they get on a horse because many of them are very stiff. They think they’re playing, but with the help of a therapist they’re actually stretching those muscles preparing them for hippotherapy."
Tim also mentioned the friendly folks at Talladega County Exchange are always available to provide product knowledge and a variety of supplies to help make the arena a success. Products like feed, supplements, tack and fertilizer help keep the horses fit and healthy so they’re ready for the children each day.
As Tim told me about the arena and the services it provides, I watched the children riding the horses and I realized even though they were doing physical therapy, they were enjoying every second of it. Through the programs, these amazing children are receiving the therapy they need, but in their minds they’re doing nothing more that horseback riding.
Watching the children laugh and giggle while pushing themselves to maintain their balance, or stretch a little higher and reach a little farther, and watching the therapists and volunteers love and encourage these children, I realized this "big white barn" I’d noticed so many times was making an incredible difference in the quality of these children’s lives.
It makes me wonder what goes on in some of those other interesting establishments I’ve noticed along Alabama’s highways. Perhaps I’ll stop in sometime, but one thing is for certain –I’ll never forget my visit to MGH Arena.
For more information on MGH Arena or to make donations, visit www.mgharena.com or call Tim Greene at (256) 761-3364.
Grace Smith is an associate editor for AFC Cooperative Farming News.