It was angels -- not horses -- taking center stage during the recent dedication ceremony for the newly completed indoor arena for Riding for the Handicapped of Western Pennsylvania on Grubbs Road in McCandless.
Program Director Toots Abbott spoke to the audience Sept. 30 about the angel who donated his retirement fund to the arena project, the angels who run the free therapeutic horseback riding program and the angels for whom the non-profit organization was created.
After more than 30 years of operating at the S.F. Ford farm in Indiana Township, the therapeutic horseback riding program for handicapped children has moved to a new facility on Grubbs Road, the home of a horse-boarding business owned by Mrs. Abbott's sister, Wanda Haney and her husband Frank.
Crucial to the program's success, the arena was constructed as per the last wishes of volunteer Jim McHugh, who was a volunteer firefighter, an instructor and board member. He died in March 2010 and left money from his retirement fund to the organization.
"This is his legacy," said Steve Salmieri, 68, of Cranberry.
"His love in life was this program. His dream was to contribute to building this arena."
In his honor, Mr. McHugh's fireman's helmet has be given its own place of honor in the arena.
Maggie McHugh, his sister, said, "Jim was part of my family, but all of you are part of his family, too."
Administered by a 13-member volunteer board, RHWPA has more than 60 trained volunteers, including nurses and physical therapists. In addition, there are seven certified instructors.
Ranging in age from 2 to 18, each rider is accompanied by three volunteer side-walkers to accompany child riders who lack muscle coordination. Riding on a horse uses the same muscle movements of the hip and pelvis that are used to walk, which gives them a sense of freedom of mobility.
Other volunteers work solely on grooming the organization's 10 horses.
The arena also was funded through a donation from the Women's Board of Pittsburgh's annual benefit auction a couple of years ago. The organization relies on individuals, businesses and corporate donations to meet the $80,000 it costs to operate each year.
Volunteers, especially men, are needed, Mr. Salmieri said.
"Some of the children are in wheelchairs and need to be carried and placed upon the horse," he said. "Initially, I didn't know if I would be able to handle it. It's so amazing just to see these kids smile, because [horseback riding] is often the only thing they have that they can do."
The arena's dedication brought out former riders such as Nick Wiese, 25, of Marshall who said he was a rider when he was 4 or 5 years old and is now a volunteer. He has Apert's Syndrome -- a malformation of the bones -- but he is able to help as a side walker.
"It's ironic to have someone like me who can relate to the kids, because I have been there," he said.
"Now I feel a responsibility to give back, because this organization has taught me life lessons and the love of horses. I'm so honored that they're still around, and I can be a part of it."
DeeDee Mikulan, 23, of Hampton was a rider in her teens and has been a volunteer for six years.
"The horses are like therapists -- they're magical," Ms. Mikulan said. "For kids in wheelchairs, it's like their muscles produce heat from the horse, and it gives them more strength.
For kids who can't talk, they start to talk to the horses."
Her mother, Diane, explained how the families of handicapped children also benefit from the program.
"Not only do the children learn good skills and physical therapy, but their parents get to see them do something they thought they couldn't, and it brings tears to their eyes," Mrs. Mikulan said. "Whenever I saw other adults be kind to DeeDee, it would warm my heart."
Christine Straley, 28, of Hampton has cerebral palsy and began riding horses at the age of 5. Arriving in a wheelchair, she returned to the group to see old friends, including her favorite horse, George.
"It's helped me a lot with balance, range of motion and walking," she said. "Most of all, it helped me become more mobile. I love this program and wish they had it for older people, too."
Jeff Rabinowitz, 18, of McCandless Boy Scout Troop 329 built the ramp and a visual aid apparatus inside of the arena as part of his Eagle Scout project. His sister, Eliana, is a volunteer and is training to become an instructor.
He said the visual aid has holes in it and is box-mounted vertically on a wall. Children on horseback toss beanbags into the holes to improve motor and coordination skills.
"RHWPA is not just riding," he said, noting that he had remembered the visual aid from the old arena and decided to replicate it. "There are a lot of different activities they use to help growth and motor skills. It's a really beneficial program.
The organization's president, Carol Shupe of Franklin Park, said the new arena also has an unexpected benefit for one of the tenants.
"George [the horse] never liked the sound of rain on the roof of the old arena," she said.
"Here, the rain doesn't bother him at all."
Jill Cueni-Cohen, freelance writer: email@example.com.