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Saturday, Aug 13, 2022
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OC LEADER BOARD: Peace in the Saddle

At the beginning of a new year, we all tend to take stock. But this year—with a global pandemic still raging—there seems to be a renewed urgency to it. Am I spending my time doing something of value? If not, what can I do to make the world a better place?

I don’t have all the answers, but I’d like to suggest a possibility. If you want to do something important with your life and make a difference, find a way to serve others. And if you need a place to start, let me tell you about a special organization in Orange County that has captured the hearts of many Southern California residents, including myself, my wife, Jill, and four generations of our family.

It’s called the J.F. Shea Therapeutic Riding Center in San Juan Capistrano.

“Welcome to The Shea Center. We exist to change your life.”

Those words greet every new client at The Shea Center, and it’s not just a catchy slogan. Here in the shadow of the Santa Ana Mountains, miracles happen almost daily. Children who were unable to walk take their first steps. Veterans shaken by their wartime experiences find peace in the saddle. And people of all ages with serious mobility issues are strengthened in body and spirit with the help of professional staff, volunteers and remarkable equine companions.

Once you have been a witness to the kind of life-changing work that happens here, you appreciate the blessings of service—and you want more. That’s exactly what happened to my family more than 22 years ago.

Back in the late 1990s, my wife, Jill, and our daughter, Marilee, were looking for ways to make a difference in our community of South Orange County. What started out as bringing cookies for the staff at Shea turned into Jill and Marilee becoming full-fledged volunteers working alongside the therapists and their clients.

Walk On

Any of The Shea Center volunteers will tell you how rewarding the experience is. Jill and I remember a client who was autistic: a little boy who had never spoken, whose mother had decided to try equine therapy to see if it would help him. Every week, she would sit in the arena grandstand and watch as the therapist and volunteer helped him mount the horse chosen specially to meet his needs.

The benefits of physical therapy using equine assisted therapy are many, including the gentle and often unspoken communication between horse and rider. Time and again the horses at Shea intuitively sense the needs of their mount and adjust accordingly. In addition, the gait of a horse strengthens the same muscles its rider would normally use to walk—even in those who lack the ability to walk themselves. It feels natural to be in the saddle and for the little boy with autism, it helped him relax and enjoy therapy.

Each week that he would ride his horse in the arena his therapist would work with him, stopping multiple times. To resume, the therapist would give the horse the command to “walk on.”

She’d ask the boy to say it too, but every week, he was silent. One day, while the boy’s mother was in the stands watching, the boy and the horse made their way around the arena then came to a stop nearby.

“Now tell him to walk on,” the therapist prompted. The boy listened … and responded, “Walk on!”  

Everyone stopped in their tracks—his lifelong silence was broken. In the stands, his mother heard her son’s voice for the first time. Because of his connection to the horse and the expertise of the therapist, the boy had finally made the connection in his mind that speech had a purpose. It was a life-changing moment for every person there.

So many lives have been changed since the center’s founding back in 1978 with one small arena and a few horses. A couple whose son was born with cerebral palsy believed equine therapy could help not only their son but so many others like him. The newly founded center started offering programs for therapeutic riding, and word spread about the amazing results. Land was leased and more programs added. Then in 2001, the J.F. Shea Co. Inc., donated seven acres of land for a permanent facility, and The Shea Center for Therapeutic Riding was the result.  

Life-Changing Events

Today, the center has grown to become one of the most respected accredited therapeutic riding programs in the United States, serving more than 280 people per week and over 1,800 clients each year. It offers physical, occupational, speech and language therapy, as well as a Stars and Stripes program for active duty/veteran military service members and their families. There are numerous adaptive riding programs for children and adults as well as special services for seniors. They have 28 full-time and 14 part-time staff and hundreds of volunteers—428 at last count—who come from the surrounding community and 13 different schools.

The Shea Family

With an annual budget of $4.5 million and just 8% of that covered by lesson fees, The Shea Center holds an annual fundraiser so they can offer generous financial aid and provide their clients and specially trained horses with the best possible environment. Being part of The Shea Center is like being part of a family of sorts, and there are many ways to get involved. To volunteer or give financial support, contact The Shea Center at (949) 240-8441. Better yet, schedule a tour to see the miracles for yourself. The center is at 26284 Oso Road in San Juan Capistrano.

In 2022, make a point of serving others. You’ll end up getting more out of it than you ever dreamed. 

Editor’s Note: Chuck Schreiber is the president and chairman of Newport Beach-based KBS, a nationally known commercial real estate investment firm that reported $738 million in revenue in 2020. Chuck and his wife, Jill, who have been married since 1974, have three children and 10 grandchildren. The Business Journal this week is publishing its annual Charity Event Guide alongside this week’s edition of the paper. 

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