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What is a Food Desert?

I was planning to write about urban gardening next. However, as I began my research, I ran across a term that was unfamiliar to me…food deserts… so I dug a little deeper. I wondered. What is a food desert, exactly? On the surface, it seems to be a contradiction of terms.

By some serendipitous twist of fate, later that same day (really), I took a break from my work and made a quick trip to the grocery to pick up a fresh loaf of bread. My local store was busy with people stocking up for an impending stretch of extremely cold weather. I quickly completed my shopping and made my way to the exit. I walked past the first few cashiers, swamped with customers, to the last checkout where the line was surprisingly short.

As I began to empty my cart onto the conveyor (I can never leave the grocery with just a loaf of bread), I realized that the young woman ahead of me was paying for her groceries with food assistance checks (a rarity in my suburban neighborhood). The cashier kept up a friendly conversation with the woman, complementing her on the beautiful baby that was wrapped in blankets and sleeping in her cart. It took a little longer for her to complete the transaction, but the cashier’s pleasant demeanor never wavered. An older woman, who I presumed had accompanied the mother and daughter, stood off to the side and watched. When the cashier was finished, she wished them well and the three women left, smiling.

As I continued to unload my cart, the older woman returned to the cashier, gave her a big hug and thanked her for her kindness. It turns out that she was a Good Samaritan who offered to drive her neighbor to the grocery when she ran out of baby food. She had been stranded without a vehicle and the woman offered to help. In the parking lot, I saw them again. The wind was howling and blowing the snow sideways. I thought about the baby wrapped in blankets. As I pulled away, I noticed that my car thermometer read -2° F.

Right then and there, I reminded myself to be more aware of the people around me. I also realized that food insecurity isn’t just a problem reserved for the urban poor or developing countries; it exists in communities all across the United States… sometimes in places where we least expect it.

Food Deserts in the United States

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According to a report to Congress prepared by the U.S. Department of Agriculture, approximately 2.3 million households in the United States are more than a mile from a supermarket and lack access to a vehicle.

That’s not 2.3 million people… that’s 2.3 million households. Think about that. Your refrigerator is empty and the nearest food store is more than a mile away. Now, if you’re living in the city, you may have the option to take a bus or the train to restock your food supply. But what if you live in the suburbs or in a rural area? What if it’s -2° F and you have a hungry baby and no car? What then?

The main measurement used to classify a food desert is the distance from nutritional food retailers. Further, proximity is not the only factor, as individuals may live close to a retailer that provides nutritious food, but the healthy food selections may be more expensive, creating an additional barrier to access. The physical distance from full service supermarkets also leaves residents of these areas more likely to purchase food from convenience stores or fast food restaurants that offer mainly processed foods that are high in fats and sugars.

In 2010, Michelle Obama brought national attention to the problem of food deserts during the launch of her Let’s Move! campaign. This initiative is dedicated to giving parents helpful information about maintaining a healthy diet and links to programs that promote active lifestyles. It also advocates for nutritional menus in our schools and is working to ensure that every family has access to healthy, affordable food. Recent findings show nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese. If we don’t change our current habits, one third of all children born in 2000 or later will suffer from obesity-related health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, diabetes, cancer, and asthma.

Solving Problems at the Local Level
Part of the problem stems from the fact that we have become a nation dependent upon others for our food production. We rely on imported products and ship domestic produce thousands of miles from its original source. This has not only increased our transportation needs and carbon footprint, but it has also put local farmers out of business. Although we will realistically never return to the agricultural roots of years past, we can all make an effort to increase the amount of locally grown products we consume. This is not a problem that has a one-size-fits-all solution. We need to address the issue at the local level and tailor solutions according to each region and specific growing season. As the trend toward sustainable lifestyles continues to grow, seasonal farmer’s markets, home food delivery programs, backyard gardens and urban farms are cropping up in communities across the country.

Creating a healthy relationship with food doesn’t have to be all work and no play. It may quite possibly serve a dual purpose. Researchers recommend that creating a direct connection between fresh produce and the consumer is an excellent way to promote healthy and sustainable lifestyles. Examples of this include urban farm programs; learning how to a start backyard or patio garden; and school programs… all great ways to experience nature and get outside and active.

Green Schools Can Play a Role
Schools can play an integral part in developing sustainable food delivery systems within the community. One of the most efficient ways to implement wide-scale change to society is through our education system. There are many ways a green school can work with the community to address important issues that affect the health and welfare of children and their families, including:
• teaching students about the impact of their eating habits on their bodies and on the environment
• incorporating healthy food choices in the school cafeteria
• creating edible gardens in schoolyards and local parks
• building kitchen classrooms within the school to demonstrate healthy food preparation
• using green curriculum to give kids hands-on experiences in growing a garden
• utilizing the insights and resources of business leaders and other community stakeholders to meet the needs of the community
• making school the center for community activities and an example of sustainable practices

As Americans, we are blessed to live in a country where the rights and privileges of its citizens are protected by law… Where nearly anything is possible if we are willing to work hard in order to achieve our goals. However, the system and its citizens are far from perfect, and with these rights come responsibilities to each other. Unfortunately, we are often quick to defend our rights, but much more reluctant to live up to our responsibilities. There needs to be a more equitable balance between the two. There is no reason that a young mother should wonder how she’s going to feed her baby in the middle of a snowstorm. It takes a village to raise a child and that should still be the number one priority of communities not only here in the United States, but around the world.

I know this may sound like an antiquated notion, but I took a couple of minutes to go online and read our Declaration of Independence. I was reminded of the monumental effort and risk the signers of that document put forth with no assurances they would ever succeed. The last line sums it up best for me:

“And for the support of this Declaration, with a firm reliance on the protection of divine Providence, we mutually pledge to each other our Lives, our Fortunes and our sacred Honor.”

I hope you will join me in helping others in need. CBG_Desert FlowerI believe they come across our path for a reason. At the very least, offer a smile to someone who could use a little encouragement. Like a flower in the middle of a desert, it may just brighten their journey.

Thanks for reading.

Elizabeth

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Interview with Cory Ramsey, Manager of Equine Programs at Achievement Centers for Children’s Camp Cheerful – Connecting with Nature on Horseback – Part Two

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April is National Autism Month. Autism is a neural development disorder characterized by both verbal and non-verbal communication impairments, hyper focus on narrowly restricted areas of interest and repetitive speech patterns and behaviors. The number of children diagnosed with autism has been increasing dramatically since the 1980’s and the prevalence of children on the autism spectrum is currently thought to be approximately 1 in 88.

Typical treatment programs focus on behavior modification, structured teaching, speech and language therapy and social therapy. Various medications are also used to treat problems associated with autism spectrum disorders. However, there is currently no known cure.

Many alternative therapies are available, including therapeutic riding programs. While research into equine assisted therapy is fairly new, anecdotal evidence shows that the effects of horseback riding on the behavior of autistic kids is often so powerful, that some children respond in ways that cannot be accomplished in any other setting. Equine therapy also provides therapeutic benefits to children with a wide range of other mental, physical and behavioral challenges as well.

I recently had the chance to sit down with Cory Ramsey, Manager of the Equine Programs at Camp Cheerful in Strongsville, Ohio, to talk about their therapeutic riding program and the benefits of providing kids with meaningful experiences in nature.

Elizabeth: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today.

Camp Cheerful has a long history of providing outdoor recreation to children with disabilities. However, the equine program has been a more recent addition to your camp programs, correct?

Cory: Yes. Camp Cheerful always had farm animals here, including horses, but they formally became a therapeutic riding center in 2005. The program originated from families that were looking for the option of equine therapy and the camp staff recognized the need to formalize it. They made the decision to become an accredited riding center and started fundraising to build the barn. They went through the accreditation process with NARHA (North American Riding for the Handicapped Association), which is now PATH (Professional Association for Therapeutic Horsemanship).

Elizabeth: Exactly how does a riding center become accredited?

Cory: PATH has standards for all accredited centers that are members. We are required to be in compliance with the treatment of the horses, the safety of the client, instructors and the volunteers. The standards also include the certification process for instructors. They have to complete a written test, a lesson plan and teach a mock lesson to other students. They are required to physically ride a horse and are tested for their riding skills as well. Instructors also need to gain overall knowledge of cognitive, physical, emotional and behavioral disabilities so that they can better understand and serve the client. PATH does a preliminary site visit for the initial accreditation and then they come back every five years to ensure the standards are maintained.

Elizabeth: Were you a part of the program since its inception?

Cory: No. I came a year later.

Elizabeth: What led you to Camp Cheerful?

Cory: I was looking for a career path that would allow me to follow my passion, which has always been horses and children. About a year after the program started, I heard they had an opening for a Volunteer Coordinator, so I applied for the position and started out working part-time.

Elizabeth: It takes a lot of volunteers to keep a therapeutic riding program running smoothly. One rider may require as many as three volunteers. I have always been amazed by the commitment and loyalty of the Camp Cheerful volunteers who return year after year to help out. I know you have since passed the responsibility of Volunteer Coordinator along to others, but you were the one who initially established and managed this incredible group of people. What’s your secret?

Cory: Well, of course I’d like to take the credit, but in reality, it is just a matter of connecting with people. Initially, volunteers will approach us for their own reasons. Whether it’s that time in life to give back, whether they’re required to do service hours for school, have extra time on their hands or maybe they just love horses. There is something that initially draws the person to Camp and to our program.

Once they’re here, I try to discover their interests, and cultivate those interests over time. So if there is someone that has always loved horses and never had the chance to be around them, I try to bring them in and help them to learn about the horse. Sometimes a student comes to do service hours for school and he or she may only need eight hours …and four years later they’re still here. I absolutely cannot take any credit for that. I attribute it to many things… the relationships that the volunteers have with the riders and also the bonds that are built between volunteers.

Ultimately, I think it’s important to create a good positive culture so people feel welcome. They all come with different degrees of expertise in different areas and so we always want to make sure people are comfortable here and don’t feel intimidated. I try to bring everyone in and work to their strengths, help them with their challenges and educate them in areas that they have interest in.

Elizabeth: Do they need special training?

Cory: We provide a two-hour orientation to make sure that the program is what they are expecting. I always like to say that the orientation is their opportunity for an out. Volunteers must be age 14 and older and be able to walk for an hour. We also want to make sure that people understand the scope of the environment that they will be working in, and that they have the maturity to handle certain behavioral challenges.

It’s amazing. There are families that become really close to certain volunteers. Some relationships have started here and continue on outside of Camp. Sometimes, part of the reason that the rider continues to participate in the program is due to a particular volunteer and part of the reason a volunteer continues to help out is because of the rider. Once they’re hooked…they stay.

Elizabeth: That’s what you want, right?

Cory: Yes. I love it!

Elizabeth: There is a growing awareness that working with and riding horses can be physically beneficial to people. I have always loved horses and have been riding for years. When I was younger, I didn’t really think about my relationship with a horse. I was just having fun. It wasn’t until much later that I realized the special bond that I had formed with my horses throughout the years. What about you? How did your relationship with horses evolve?

Cory: I’ve been working with horses since I was about ten. I was the little girl with the horses all lined up on the shelf. My aunt and uncle had a farm with ponies and a horse and I would go out there for hours. When I was twelve, I volunteered at Gibbs Farm, which is now Stearns Homestead in Parma, Ohio. After that, I started riding my aunt’s pony, and then took lessons. Later, we bought a horse…and the rest is history.

Elizabeth: Was there a defining moment in your association with horses where you realized there was more to the relationship between horses and humans than just pure fun?

Cory: I think I had an immediate connection, even before I started riding. I have always felt very comfortable around horses. At first, I played with my aunt’s ponies…going out there to groom and take care of them. I can’t describe it or put it into words, but it was just being around them, more so than the riding, that created the connection.

Elizabeth: One of the misperceptions about equine therapy is that it’s merely a pony ride…that it’s a fun experience for the kids and nothing more. But there are also tangible physical and mental benefits associated with therapeutic riding sessions. Specifically, how does equine therapy help the rider?

Cory: One of the main physical benefits is that the movement of the horse helps build trunk strength in a child with a physical disability. I’ve seen kids be able to sit up taller and reach further. I’ve had a mom that said, “My seventeen year old son can sit up on his bed while I change his shirt, and he’s never been able to do that in his life.” She attributes his progress to riding.

For our kids on the autism spectrum, there are also psychological benefits to riding. These kids can be in an escalated state of behavior prior to getting on the horse for a variety of reasons. But once they are mounted, the swaying motion of the horse’s gait lulls them into a calmer state and allows them to focus more clearly. I have seen quite a few transformations. We support the child, but really it’s the horse and the rider that are creating that connection.

Elizabeth: The parent of a child with a disability might ask how they can be sure that equine therapy is right for their child. Is there some sort of evaluation process that occurs before kids are admitted into the program?

Cory: Yes. Initially, we do a telephone intake and ask them a series of questions to make sure that we are able to serve their needs. Then, we have the family come in, tour the barn and at this time we fit the child for a helmet. For some of our kids with sensory issues, wearing a helmet can be more overwhelming than being in the barn with a horse.

During the physical intake process, we have them ride a horse for about fifteen minutes. At the conclusion of the evaluation ride, we sit down with the family to determine if this is a beneficial activity for their child. Once that’s gone well, we invite them into a time slot for a session of nine weeks. Throughout the nine-week program, we take progress notes and make sure that were meeting and adjusting goals that were set from the beginning. The family can be looking for social interaction for their child, conquering a fear of animals, increasing trunk strength or maybe just pure recreation. Sometimes, for a child who is in therapy all week, parents find that horseback riding is a way for them to have a release, make some friends, and do something fun that other kids can do.

Elizabeth: With regard to autism, you recently built a sensory trail in the woods behind the barn, which seems to be particularly beneficial to riders on the autism spectrum suffering from sensory integration issues that make it difficult for them to understand their environment. What is a sensory trail and how does that support the equine therapy program?

Cory: The sensory trail is designed to provide riders with a horseback riding experience that also stimulates their sense of sight, hearing and touch. We take them over a wooden bridge that makes a “clippity-clop” sound when the horse walks across it. There are different types of footing such as gravel and sand that the rider can hear and feel as the horse walks. There are tactile stations that are set up along the trail with various textures to stimulate the rider’s sense of touch and keep them interacting. The sensory trail also has fun activities to intellectually challenge kids, as well as provide them with the physical benefits of being on the horse.

Elizabeth: Was there a reason for building the trail in the woods rather than putting it right next to the barn?

Cory: It’s just an area to expand and offer more. The kids benefit from being outside. So by placing the sensory trail in the woods, we combined the therapeutic riding lesson with the experience of being in nature.

Elizabeth: Even in the 1940’s, the founders of Camp saw the benefit of exposing kids to nature. Times have changed. Television, computers and video games take up a lot more free time. What do you see as some of the positive effects of nature on kids here at Camp Cheerful?

Cory: One of the biggest benefits is that we get them outside. We’re able to point out deer, geese and all sorts of wildlife when we take them on trail rides. We do scavenger hunts, where we pick up leaves and look for wildflowers. We try to do some identification of the plants and wildlife on the property and in the park nearby. But as I mentioned, because a lot of our clients are in therapy all the time, Camp provides a welcome relief from that structured environment. In a camp setting, they’re outdoors and also reaping the therapeutic benefits of riding a horse. Their trunk strength is engaged, their coordination is engaged, but they are also experiencing nature which soothes many of our riders. When we’re outside, I often ask the class to just be silent and listen. This helps them to concentrate on the swaying of the horse and the sound of their feet on the ground. This seems to relax them.

Camp also gives kids the opportunity and freedom to run around in the fresh air and wide-open spaces, play sports and participate in other physical activities. I think that our kids are seeing less and less of that these days, and it is recaptured here at Camp.

Elizabeth: What types of disabilities benefit from the therapeutic riding program?

Cory: We have kids and adults with physical disabilities such as Cerebral Palsy, Muscular Dystrophy and Muscular Sclerosis. As I previously mentioned, we also have clients on the autism spectrum to varying degrees, and children with behavioral and emotional disabilities.

Elizabeth: There is a sign inside the barn that reads, “Miracles Happen Here Everyday”. Do you have a particular success story that you would like to share?

Cory: Actually, I recall one intake where I was evaluating a child who was about six years old. We had volunteers helping us, so I was able to stand back and watch the evaluation process that was underway. I was assessing the rider for balance, suitability and safety… things like that. As I was observing, I walked over and started talking with the grandmother who brought the child. I noticed she was crying. At first, I was fearful that there was something wrong. I learned that she was crying because her grandson was interacting with the volunteers and starting to talk for the first time. It was amazing! She said, “He’s never tried to form words, and he’s trying to form words right now.”

Elizabeth: What do you attribute that to?

Cory: I think that the riders are enjoying the input that they’re getting from the connection to the horse, and they’re trying to give some sort of a response back.

Elizabeth: Amazing.

Cory: I know. It is hard to put into words.

Elizabeth: I think you put it into words quite nicely. Thank you for your time. It’s always a pleasure to talk to you about the wonderful work you do here.

For more information on Achievement Centers’ Camp Cheerful and the therapeutic riding program, contact the camp office at (440) 238-6200.

The Achievement Centers for Children Camp Cheerful has been providing outdoor recreation programs for children with disabilities since 1947 and was the first camp for people with disabilities in the State of Ohio. Located on 52 acres in Strongsville, Ohio, and set amidst a picturesque valley in the Mill Stream Run Reservation of the Cleveland Metroparks, the camp offers a wide variety of opportunities to get kids outside and active, including the chance to ride a horse.

Other traditional camp activities include hiking, swimming, fishing, canoeing, arts and crafts, nature study activities, games, campfire activities, music and sports. Camp Cheerful also offers a state-of-the-art, fully handicap-accessible High Ropes challenge course during camp sessions. Camp programs include Day, Residential and Weekend Respite Camps, as well as a Camp for Children with Autism.


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Hope for a Greener America

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In his inaugural address, President Obama made the environment a top priority for his second term. Many were surprised by his resolve. However I wondered…was this truly a shift in government policy, or was something else at work here?

As I began to look for answers, I was pleasantly surprised to find that many eco-friendly programs have already been set into motion and are gaining momentum across the country. During the election, we were bombarded with partisan battles about all sorts of environmental issues, including the future of fossil fuels, pipelines, and the EPA. Some even labeled climate change a hoax designed to deceive American citizens with false beliefs and interests. In reality, nothing could be further from the truth. Fortunately, the majority of the American people are genuinely concerned about protecting the environment and many had already begun green projects and programs at the grassroots level. But if that’s the case, why aren’t we hearing more about them?

Well, the answer is… now we are, and Obama’s reelection is part of that clarion call. There’s a new enthusiasm about the environment and it’s energizing both the people and the politicians. Citizens are finally standing up to defend the importance of ecological stewardship and their proactive efforts are dovetailing nicely with several “participant-friendly” federal programs.

America’s Great Outdoors

AGO-report-300President Obama is famous for his grassroots approach to change. In fact, many will agree that this strategy not only was the key to his election success in 2008, but also made him a two-term president in even greater numbers this past year. So it should be no surprise that in April of 2010, President Obama had already introduced America’s Great Outdoors (AGO), a citizen-directed initiative aimed at reigniting our historic commitment to conserving and enjoying the magnificent natural heritage that has helped to shape our nation.

By February of 2011, a report was completed by various governmental agencies in consultation with the American people. The report was a culmination of the comments and conversations of more than 150,000 citizens in communities across the country. Citizens including farmers, ranchers, hunters, anglers, outdoor recreation enthusiasts, parents, teachers, and young people, along with conservation organizations, state, local, and tribal governments, historic preservation groups, faith communities, and businesses shared their ideas on how to connect people with America’s natural and cultural treasures, and also ways to build on the conservation successes already implemented in their areas.

The results indicated that the American people want to continue to enjoy their outdoor heritage and preserve it for their children and grandchildren. AGO strives to empower all Americans to share in the responsibility to conserve, restore and provide better access to our lands and waters, and reconnect Americans to natural landscapes and cultural heritage sites, leaving a healthy outdoor legacy for future generations.

This is not the first time that a president has harnessed the power of American citizens to protect the environment. From 1933 to 1943, Franklin D. Roosevelt championed the Civilian Conservation Corps (CCC) in the United States, one of the most popular of his New Deal programs. The CCC was a public work relief program that not only provided unskilled manual labor jobs in conservation and the development of natural resources in rural lands owned by the  government, but also led to a greater public awareness and appreciation of the outdoors. President Obama’s AGO initiative builds on Roosevelt’s legacy of stewardship and reaffirms American’s commitment to conserving the extraordinarily diverse lands and waters that nourish and support us.

Let’s Move Outside!

Lets Move OutsideFirst Lady Michelle Obama introduced Let’s Move Outside! a couple of months after the president’s AGO initiative and this program plays a key support role in advancing his recreation and conservation agenda. In order to keep our country viable in the 21st century and beyond, we must also pay attention the health of our human ecosystems, especially the health of our children. Let’s Move Outside! is the outdoor activity component to Mrs. Obama’s Let’s Move! campaign, aimed at ending childhood obesity through promoting healthy eating habits and active lifestyles for American children. Let’s Move Outside! links parents to parks and trails across the country and offers families helpful suggestions on ways to develop a more active lifestyle.

Kids need nutritious meals and vigorous exercise to stay healthy and fit. Unfortunately, times have changed and children spend more and more time on inside activities like TV, video games and the computer. Parents are busier than ever before, and as a result, families eat fewer well-balanced meals and kids snack in between. According to the Let’s Move! website, “Over the past three decades, childhood obesity rates in America have tripled, and today, nearly one in three children in America are overweight or obese… If we don’t solve this problem, one third of all children born in 2000 or later will suffer from diabetes at some point in their lives. Many others will face chronic obesity-related health problems like heart disease, high blood pressure, cancer, and asthma.” 

However, habits that have developed over the past several decades will not be easily undone. To effectively correct the imbalances in our daily lives, there needs to be a frank dialogue on the repercussions of our lifestyle choices. We must teach children that eating is an important part of life and has the greatest impact on the world’s resources and on our personal health. We can begin by providing them with healthy lunch choices at school to prove that we are serious about making significant changes to our current system. We can also begin to teach them how to make healthy choices for themselves.

Ecological awareness – understanding the network of life’s systems and cycles – is a key factor in helping people to adopt more sustainable habits, including eating. To be ecologically “literate” requires reconnecting people with the human ecosystem– it requires relearning how to live within the context of our own human habitats and communities. In short, it requires education.

U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools

department-of-education-Green-Ribbon-SchoolsAll living things change their environment in some form and the life cycles of all species are continually evolving. However, humans have been endowed with the gift of reason. Therefore, as the human influence on the planet becomes more pervasive, we cannot escape the responsibility of using our intellect to manage the natural spaces and species and mitigate the effects of increased human involvement. Unfortunately, we are changing the earth faster than the rate of comprehension of this change and thus, the need for environmental education has never been more important than it is today.

President Roosevelt once noted, “Democracy cannot succeed unless those who express their choice are prepared to choose wisely. The real safeguard of democracy, therefore, is education…” The same can be said about the safeguard of humanity and essentially all life on earth.

Despite clashes on Capitol Hill about the validity and severity of climate change, the U.S. Department of Education recognizes that education plays a vital role in the sustainability movement. As a result, U.S. Secretary of Education Arne Duncan initiated the annual U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon Schools award in 2011. According to the U.S. Department of Education website, “The Green Ribbon Schools recognition award honors schools that are exemplary in reducing environmental impact and costs; improving the health and wellness of students and staff; and providing effective environmental and sustainability education, which incorporates STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math), civic skills and green career pathways. The recognition award is part of a larger U.S. Department of Education effort to identify and disseminate knowledge about practices that are proven to result in improved student engagement, higher academic achievement and graduation rates, and workforce preparedness, as well as a government wide goal of increasing energy independence and economic security.”

The results were impressive with over 350 schools completing the application. The winning schools were those that made the greatest progress in three areas, including reduced environmental impact, improved health and effective environmental education.  The first ever 2012 honorees hailed from 78 school systems in 28 states, the District of Columbia and the Bureau of Indian Education and while each school went about “going green” in their own way, they all serve as shining examples for other schools to follow. It’s a great start, so spread the word and get involved!

In Closing

As citizens of our great democracy, we are always quick to defend our rights, but much slower to accept our responsibilities. Oftentimes, we may doubt whether our individual efforts can make a difference, when in fact it’s the only thing that can truly bring about lasting change. We cannot solely rely on the people we vote into office to safeguard the things we hold dear. Each of us should understand the ecological impact of our actions and become active participants in shaping the programs and policies that affect our country. This will ensure that the changes we desire are ideals that will continue to sustain us as a nation and endure for generations to come.

American history has proven that there’s strength in numbers. Let’s move forward together…

Elizabeth


 


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We Cannot Allow Newtown to Become Anytown

In the land of the free and the home of the brave, how can we expect to create innovative new learning environments for our students and prepare them to be meaningful contributors to the 21st century when they are locked in their schools with armed guards standing watch at the doors? How can this possibly be conducive to learning and creative thought? This is America – leader of the free world – and our children deserve better. We need to find a way to make it so.

First and foremost, my condolences go out to all of the families who have lost loved ones in Newtown and in other cities around the country where mass shootings have occurred this past year. No citizen of this nation (or any country for that matter) should ever have to experience such grief and loss. However, in reality, there are many school systems in the United States where fear, violence and even death are a regular part of daily life for students. Unfortunately, we don’t pay attention until something terrible happens en masse in a place where we are least expecting it.

As parents, we are all concerned about keeping our children safe. Speaking from personal experience, the threat of strangers was my greatest fear when my children were young. In reality, though, it’s not an outsider but rather people known to the child, family or community who cause most incidents of violence. Such was the case in Newtown, Connecticut and other cities where mass killings have occurred. Worse still, many of these shooting incidents are students turning on fellow students in their own communities — an ominous warning of a growing malady among our youth that, if left untreated, will surely grow to epidemic proportions.

To be clear, this is not a blog about gun control, mental illness or major breaches of school security. While they are important topics, they only address the symptoms, not cure the ailment.

A convergence of factors has led us to where we are today. Increased populations place people in close proximity to one another in ever expanding urban areas. Poverty also plays a role. Children living in poverty are far more vulnerable to violence than other segments of the population. According to the National Poverty Center at the University of Michigan, in 2010, 16.4 million children under the age of 18, or 22.0 percent, were considered poor. That’s almost a quarter of our youth who are affected.

However, as we know, school violence is not confined to disadvantaged populations. In more affluent communities, tightly packed schedules and high expectations have pushed some kids to the breaking point. Standardized tests and school rankings pit students against one another in an unhealthy academic competition. Emotional and behavioral difficulties are on the rise and affect many aspects of children’s lives, including achievement in school, relationships with family and friends, and the risk of alcohol or substance abuse.

Further, kids’ lives are becoming more and more controlled. They are being confined to smaller spaces and tighter time frames, from car seats, strollers and the interior of the family SUV, to highly choreographed schedules that leave little time for free play and quiet reflection. And the stress of it all is beginning to manifest itself in unhealthy ways. Add to this mix easy access to dangerous weapons and the glamorization of violence and the results should be no surprise to anyone.

But does the pathology run deeper still? Alfie Kohn, author of What Does It Mean to Be Well Educated? And More Essays on Standards, Grading, and Other Follies, questions the basic structure of our American high schools and the way our students are being educated. He quotes Linda Darling-Hammond, professor of education at Stanford University who bases the following evaluation on what psychologists have identified as key human needs. She argues that

“Many well-known adolescent difficulties are not intrinsic to the teenage years but are related to the mismatch between adolescents’ developmental needs and the kinds of experiences most junior high and high schools provide. When students need close affiliation, they experience large depersonalized schools; when they need to develop autonomy, they experience few opportunities for choice and punitive approaches to discipline; when they need expansive cognitive challenges and opportunities to demonstrate their competence, they experience work focused largely on the memorization of facts…”

Kohn believes that American high schools not only fail to meet the individual needs of students, but often make a mockery of them. How do we expect our children to become leaders when they are afraid to make mistakes and are forced to follow a standardized plan that may or may not address their individual strengths and weaknesses?

In short, kids want to feel like what they do and say matters. They also want to have the ability and the opportunity to make competent decisions about things that affect their lives, and all our lives. Ultimately, they want to feel connected to others… And, when kids feel like they belong, they are far more likely to want to nurture those connections, whether it is bonds formed with other students, teachers, their community or the world at large.

This is where I believe including environmental education in school curricula has the potential to make a significant difference in engaging students in their own learning processes and encouraging them to start taking responsibility for their personal acquisition of knowledge. Ultimately, it’s not about the grade or the test score or the class ranking. It’s what you know – that incredible sense of entitlement, and responsibility, when you gather into yourself the vast reality of this world. Needless to say, acquiring that knowledge is powerful and personally transformative.

Environment-based education uses human habitats and natural spaces as context across various disciplines of study. The program is characterized by kids exploring the local community and natural surroundings, with hands-on experiences of environmental discovery and problem solving, and learning that accommodates students’ individual skills and abilities. Research shows that this approach delivers many benefits to students. Results show that students tend to improve their overall GPA’s and stay in school longer. They develop critical thinking skills, experience improved motivation, more responsible behavior, and a sense of environmental stewardship. Students also show more cooperation and improved conflict resolution skills that will go a long way toward eliminating personal frustrations that can result in violent acts such as the terrible shootings that continue to plague our country.

Violence is everywhere. More locks and more guns are not going to make it go away. We need to find effective ways to connect with each other and the world around us in order to heal our social ills. It is my sincere wish that 2013 will see real and meaningful change in this regard… and that we will make the health and welfare of our children our #1 priority. If we don’t get this right, nothing else will matter.

Best wishes for a happy and healthy New Year.

Elizabeth

Post script: In the aftermath of the unfathomable tragedy at Sandy Hook elementary school, a platoon of golden retrievers – some of nature’s finest – were called in to ease the pain of a wounded community. Their soft fur, wet noses and unconditional love eased the fears of frightened children and warmed the hearts of many… Living proof that we are truly all in this together!



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Connecting with Nature on Horseback – Part One

They come to the barn with burdens no child should have to bear. Some children are ill and some have been injured, while others are completely overwhelmed by family circumstances beyond their control. Many are incapacitated by mental or physical impairments that prevent them from fully experiencing the joys of childhood.

I have been a therapeutic riding volunteer for many years, working with a wide range of children, from autistic and physically handicapped riders, to kids with attention deficit and behavioral challenges. I have also worked with kids who just want to get outside and ride. No matter what brings them to the barn, it’s not long before riders begin to experience the truly transformative power of the horse/human connection.

Imagine you’re a child again and mounting a horse for the first time. For any child it takes a great deal of courage. Some of these kids are barely able to sit upright without help. Other children are bombarded with an overload of sensory stimuli that they are unable to sort out on their own. Still others are truly afraid, asked to place their trust in a horse when they haven’t been able to count on the humans in their lives, let alone a 1000-pound animal with feet the size of saucers. But, step-by-step, their fear turns to fascination and infirmity is replaced by an unseen strength that coaxes them to sit a little taller and experience the world from a new vantage point.

The sensory reinforcement of a trail ride on horseback is so powerful that children with learning disabilities often respond in ways that cannot be accomplished in any other setting. As they ride through the fields and into the woods, many of these children become keenly aware of their surroundings and are able to fully engage in the natural world all around them for the first time. They will turn to notice a tiny goldfinch perched on a thistle plant and recite the word “yellow”. They may listen to the sound of their horse’s feet on a wooden bridge and count to five. Many children will close their eyes and smile as they feel a warm breeze on their faces… all seemingly small steps, but milestones in their journey toward self-awareness, understanding and expression.

It is unclear how the horse/human relationship came to be. However, one thing is clear, horses have been helping humans for thousands of years. The partnership between man and horse has had a tremendous impact on the societal evolution of our species. While we generally think of evolution in terms of human advancement with little regard for the journey of other species, our history on earth is relatively short compared to that of the horse. Surprisingly, Equus caballus, the ancient ancestor of the modern horse, has been evolving for fifty-five million years compared to the one million years that humans have been walking the planet.

Is it possible they have lessons to teach us? Take a horseback ride along a wooded trail and you’ll know immediately that it’s a lesson about shared experience between human and horse — sharing the moment and sharing the natural world all around you.

And what is it about the nature of a horse that evokes such emotional responses in people? I’ve asked myself the same question a million times. I have worked with horses since I was a young girl and have experienced first hand their restorative abilities. I have a shelf lined with books on the subject and journals filled with notes. The incidents of horses healing humans are not isolated, they’re commonplace. And its not just horses… Ask our soldiers in the Middle East about the bonds they’ve developed with service dogs that have stood beside them despite terrible conditions. Some will tell you that these animals have even saved their lives.

South African veterinarian and researcher Johannes Odendaal has written extensively on the topic and paved the way for greater acceptance of the healing power of animals. His premise is that all humans need attention on a basic emotional level for successful social interactions. Odendaal believed that the successful use of a companion animal was most commonly found among people who were unable to connect with other humans in meaningful and fulfilling ways. His research has shown that substituting animal for human is the basis of animal therapy. Further research has proven that significant chemical changes occur in the brains of both human and animal during these interactions. In the fast-paced world we live in today, this form of therapy may become invaluable as the demographic of people who are unable (or unwilling) to communicate in “meaningful and fulfilling ways” increases to include a broader segment of the population than Odendaal ever envisioned.

Animal therapy provides interesting insights into the back-to-nature movement that is gaining momentum around the world. The authentic nature of the horse gives kids permission to respond with similar authenticity, allowing for non-judgmental companionship and the freedom to express true emotions that often transcend speech. The process of trial-and-error with a willing and animated companion is an excellent way for children to learn about appropriate behaviors, responsibility and sensitivity to others in the animal and the human world. This type of interaction is one clear example of the lessons nature can teach us about life.

It is virtually impossible for me to condense all of my thoughts on equine therapy into a single blog, so more to come at a later date.

In the meantime, if you’re looking for a fun activity to get your kids outside and active, consider signing them up for riding lessons or go for a family trail ride. You may connect with nature in ways you never thought possible!

Happy Trails,

Elizabeth