Health

Equestrian Program Helps Young People Battle Depression During Pandemic

Throughout the pandemic, many children relegated to their homes have struggled to overcome the loneliness of virtual learning — so much so that cases of anxiety and depression have skyrocketed among this age group since the first reports of COVID-19 last March.

For District resident Selina Brown, the “new normal” has intensified the significance of her equestrian program in which dozens of youth have been able to learn about and ride horses while enjoying each other’s company in a socially distanced environment located several miles outside of the District.

“Just like horses, humans like to be together. We’re herd animals,” said Brown, founder and CEO of the Strengthening Thoughts and Nurturing Dreams [STAND] Foundation. “It’s a little painful when we’re separated.”

Since last July, the STAND Foundation, headquartered east of the Anacostia River, has facilitated 15 trips to horse ranches located in southern Maryland. A total of 40 students between the ages of 8 and 14 have since connected with nature and acquired a basic knowledge of animal anatomy, oftentimes at little to no cost to their parents.

Another cohort is scheduled to launch on January 29 with a Facebook horse movie watch party.

Brown, an original member of the Cowgirls of Color rodeo team, launched the STAND Foundation’s six-week hybrid program at the start of the pandemic, sending each young person home with tech supplies they could use during the virtual component of the program under the guidance of their instructor.

While out and about on a horse ranch in La Plata, Md., participants dissected a donkey’s fetus and fostered a sense of camaraderie that the virtual learning, to an extent, couldn’t provide.

“To bring these children together and give them some sort of social life is therapeutic in itself,” Brown said. “We have a lot of strangers who are best friends because they get to see [each] other [and] build relationships. It’s a beautiful thing to see them come together and be free to enjoy the world outside of technology.”

In the beginning of the 2020-2021 academic year, several D.C. public charter and private schools incorporated outdoor learning among their offerings; some public schools later followed suit with the launch of CARE classrooms.

Amid a rise in COVID-19 cases among school-aged children toward the end of last year, D.C. Mayor Muriel Bowser (D) issued a ban on socially distanced outdoor activities on the District’s public schools and high-contact youth and amateur exhibitions. That decision raised questions among outdoor sporting enthusiasts about safe alternatives for youth engagement.

On each trip the STAND Foundation has facilitated, a maximum of 10 youth board a school bus with each student wearing a mask and sitting in a seat of their own. Brown told The Informer that program organizers thoroughly clean materials, initiate temperature checks and keep a sizable amount of hand sanitizer on deck.

On certain occasions, they’ve also allowed parents to accompany youth.

Donna (Aza) Smith, the mother of an 11-year-old participant, Amari Jackson, recounted such experiences.

With the uncertainty of summer plans looming over her in the midst of a pandemic, the Southeast resident embraced the STAND Foundation’s equestrian program. She revealed plans of enrolling Amari in a future cohort group.

“My daughter absolutely loved the program and that once-a-week interaction where the STAND Foundation provided transportation to La Plata, where they went to a ranch owned by a woman and they were being taught by a woman of color who’s a veterinarian,” Smith said.

“The power in it was just so layered [because of the] horses who are these animals that are so sensitive that our children don’t know about and get to interact with. I remember my daughter coming back so excited and thinking this is such a wonderful program.”

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