By Britney Grover
For one day this holiday season, an indoor arena in Kingsport, Tennessee, will transform into a winter wonderland: Children will take their stick horses on an adventure, enjoy candy and goodies, make crafts to take home and meet Santa and his friend, miniature therapy horse Miss Buttons. During this festive Open House on December 1, Small Miracles Therapeutic Equestrian Center invites program participants, families and the community to experience a special magic that permeates the center. But that magic isn’t limited to one day, and it isn’t bringing toys. It’s bringing miracles.
Small Miracles began in 1995 with nurse Mary Smith, who had dreamed of creating an equestrian therapy center since she was 16 years old. Within six months, the community was flocking to her little pilot program of equine activities for those with special needs. By 1996, Small Miracles Therapeutic Equestrian Center, a Christian-based non-profit organization, was officially born. From there, Small Miracles grew from a handful of students to purchasing and building their very own 11-acre facility in 1999, expanding to serve not only individuals of all ages with special needs and disabilities but those who have suffered trauma, at-risk children and youth as well as military members and their families. In 2019, Small Miracles served approximately 400 separate individuals.
Many people have been inspired to join Small Miracles along the way including Sherri Russell. Sherri, who showed Appaloosas and Quarter Horses in Florida, moved to Tennessee after a 25-year nursing career with an interest in becoming involved in a horse therapy program. “In 2007 I began my journey as a volunteer at Small Miracles,” she shared, “and that decision has literally changed my life.”
Now, Sherri is not only a Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International (PATH Intl.) Registered Instructor but the Small Miracles Executive/Program Director. She oversees the services for children, youth and adults with special needs through the Therapeutic Horsemanship program; at-risk children and youth through the Positive Youth Development program; and military veterans and families through Horses Empower Heroes, all offered with unconditional love and made possible by some special horses: the Miracle Herd.
“Our Miracle Herd is an amazing assortment of 14 horses and ponies,” Sherri said. “Some have been donated by previous owners, and some are on free lease to our program. Many of our equine staff members have previous show histories in hunter-jumpers, three-day eventing, roping, rodeo and ranch sorting.”
Tucker was one such equine staff member who has made a huge difference in the life of Jerry: husband, father of two young boys and 13-year U.S. Navy veteran with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). This December, Jerry celebrates two years working with Small Miracles; December two years ago began much less merry. “I had little to no control over my emotions, often my thoughts and sometimes my actions,” Jerry shared. “I felt angry most of the time, but not a normal anger … more like a raging fire burning out of control.”
Plagued by nightmares, survivor’s guilt, chronic anxiety and constant pain, anger led to apathy, apathy led to recurring deep depression. In December 2017, Jerry entered in-patient treatment at the V.A. Medical Center and was introduced to the Horses Empower Heroes program. “I was so miserable I was willing to try anything, and I like animals so I thought I’d give it a try,” he said. “The very first day I met Tucker, he and I made an instant connection. I found out we have a lot in common, and he liked me as much as I liked him.”
The more Jerry went to Small Miracles, the closer he got to staff, to volunteers and to Tucker. “As I got more comfortable with Tucker, one day I realized he could do something for me no doctor, therapist, shrink, friend or family member could ever do for me: He could listen.”
Because his job in the military was classified, Jerry can never tell anyone about the unimaginable things he saw and did — that is, he can never tell another human being. “I can tell Tucker anything and he will never tell another soul,” Jerry said. “More important, he will never judge me. He doesn’t care what I’ve done; he loves me. This is the best therapy I could ever have, and more than I ever thought possible.”
Over 25 years old, Tucker finished his time on earth last September to the sound of Jerry’s voice, after 10 years as leader of the Miracle Herd. Jerry’s healing that began with Tucker continues on in the Horses Empower Heroes program with Eclipsar, a 15-year-old Holsteiner retired hunter-jumper. In the two years since first coming to Small Miracles, Jerry’s life has changed in miraculous ways. “I now have better control over my emotions,” he said. “I stop and think things through most of the time. I eat and sleep better and my mental health has dramatically improved. Although I still have a long way to go, I’ve come a long way, and Small Miracles has been there for me every step of the way.”
Funding the Future
With genuine, caring staff, the Small Miracles team will continue to be there for Jerry and hundreds of others. But even with their compassionate staff and Miracle Herd, Small Miracles operates only with the help of dedicated volunteers and generous supporters. In addition to their winter wonderland Open House, Small Miracles will host their Annual Western Derby benefit dinner and silent auction on April 4, 2020, and an annual unmounted rodeo provided by Circle C Cowboy Church for children and youth of all abilities in October.
Volunteers 14 and up are always needed to help with student lessons and be a part of the barn team. Whether volunteer, participant, visitor or family, each person who visits Small Miracles contributes to the miracles — small and large — they provide, and experience the special spirit that permeates the farm year-round.
“Many of our participants share they feel God’s presence at Small Miracles,” Sherri said. “From our horses hugging, nurturing and unconditionally accepting our children and youth who have experienced trauma to our military veterans who have sacrificed so much and finally find peace, purpose and a sense of belonging, I have experienced many profoundly joyful moments at Small Miracles watching our therapy horses be the muscle behind the miracles.”
For more information, visit small-miracles.org
photos courtesy of Small Miracles