For one Little Creek Special Equestrians volunteer, earning accolades for her hard work pales in comparison to the opportunity to witness the progress and joy of the riders she helps.
What started out as a class project has become a passion for Farmersburg woman Carrie Holycross, 23, who often devotes 10-20 hours per week to furthering the efforts of the special horse riding center at Center Point. This weekend, Holycross will be recognized at the Hoosier Horse Fair at the Indiana State Fairgrounds at Indianapolis after being selected as the Volunteer of the Year for Indiana.
Little Creek Director Penny Akers explained that while the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NARHA) has recognized volunteers on a national level, this is the first year a state-level volunteer has been chosen for recognition. Centers like Little Creek had the opportunity to nominate outstanding volunteers for consideration.
"Our volunteer was chosen as the Volunteer of the Year this year," she said, noting Holycross was nominated by Becky Sinclair, the grandmother of Skylar Sinclair, who takes lessons at Little Creek.
Holycross first volunteered at Little Creek when she was required to take 10 hours of community service for a human service-based course, and works as a Basic EMT as well as serving as a volunteer firefighter in Sullivan County at the Thunderbird Fire Protection Territory. Although she had a minimal amount of experience with horses from childhood, she explained she had never really worked with horses or persons with special needs. Often first-time volunteers or those considering volunteering at Little Creek are apprehensive because of their lack of experience.
"I was one of them. I was very nervous," she said, but added her fears were quickly allayed once she began working there. "They're just like anybody else really. It's hard to put into words.
"I've been out there since they started lessons. I enjoy being out there and working with the kids and the horses. To see the kid excel and improve, it's a wonderful thing."
Seeing children and adults controlling large animals when they have their own challenges to overcome is "really something to see," she explained. In addition to spending time with the riders and animals, Holycross also goes to shows, cares for the animals when Akers is out of town and makes calls for the not-for-profit organization. She's even been known to set up a tent at Little Creek so she can help when necessary. Working with Skylar, 5, has also been rewarding.
"Seeing her get on that horse for the first time, she was just a natural rider. She's such a cute little kid, and we've taken her to a couple shows and just had a lot of fun," said Holycross, who was quick to pass praise back on to Little Creek. "Penny and Harlan are doing a great thing. They need some recognition too."
Feedback from parents and family members of riders like Sinclair help volunteers realize the impact of their efforts, and how much riding helps them improve in their daily lives. A recent volunteer training session at Little Creek was well attended, but approximately three volunteers are needed for each rider, so additional help is always welcome.
"Any other day we have lessons and I'm available, I head out there," Holycross said. "We have a lot of fun out there. I encourage anyone to come out and work with the people and horses."
For people like Skylar's grandmother, knowing Holycross has medical training is an added assurance when children as young as 4 years old who also have special needs climb on top of horses for the first time. Although Skylar, who deals with impaired speech and other challenges, usually doesn't warm up to strangers right away, Sinclair said she seemed to take up with Holycross immediately.
"Carrie was a big asset. That (her medical training) helped me and her mom to feel more secure. She took up with Carrie right away," she said, adding that riding at Little Creek has seemed to improve her granddaughter's speech. "Riding those animals that whole time really made a difference."
After two months of lessons, when Skylar was only 4 years old, Holycross lead her in her first horse show at Sullivan, where she placed third in spite of her young age and limited amount of riding experience. She and Holycross had already formed a special bond, Sinclair said, and the horse her granddaughter was riding also has a unique challenge.
"Shadow is blind in one eye, so when they placed in that show in Sullivan, it was right out of a book. I don't even know how to describe that warm feeling it gives you. You could see Penny's face too. It just gave you goosebumps," she said. "It was one of those Kodak moments that made me cry. Carrie's a wonderful person for what she does. Skylar thought she was so neat. And the doors that they opened up, because the judge had no idea that Skylar was from a special riding group. She had no idea Skylar had these problems."
While Sinclair said it was difficult for her to write the letter to nominate Holycross for the volunteer award, it was important to her and her granddaughter that she convey just how much the young woman and Little Creek have done for them.
"It is just a wonderful, wonderful thing. It's so exciting the things they do. It's like they have their own little family. It's so overwhelming to see those kids. She doesn't have to be different out there. And that's what's neat. That's what's really neat. It makes them no different out there. It's the most amazing, remarkable thing.
"We're making progress, and we can see that. The whole family can understand her so much better when she's riding. She talks a mile a minute, and she goes back because she wants people to understand when she's talking about Little Creek," she said. "When you see these kids in another environment, then doing this, it makes such a difference."
Sinclair said Skylar and the rest of the family are looking forward to the riding season, and hope others get involved. She hopes more people like Holycross choose to give of their time and benefit from the experience.
"She gives of her time so much, and it's just unbelievable. She doesn't want any of that recognition, but she is just a wonderful person. She's just so humble about everything. She's just so deserving of it," she said. "The reward from this - you can't even put it into words. I kind of think that's why Carrie does it. I don't think she wants anything in return. I think that smile is all she needs.
"It's such a wonderful, wonderful organization. We just can't wait for everything to get going. I'm so glad that we found it. I really hope more people get involved."