A special connection
by Will Heath
Feb 17, 2014 | 3841 views |  0 comments | 65 65 recommendations | email to a friend | print
Will Heath /The Daily Home
Joy O’Neal, executive director of The Red Barn, is pictured here with Flight, one of the most popular horses at the facility.
Will Heath /The Daily Home

Joy O’Neal, executive director of The Red Barn, is pictured here with Flight, one of the most popular horses at the facility.
Their stories are enough to fill up an entire afternoon.

The volunteers who serve at The Red Barn, located on Bailey Road — just off Alabama 119 — are part of a faith-based non-profit whose mission is “to promote and provide equine assisted activities using rescue horses, when possible, to individuals of all abilities and circumstances, especially children,” according to its website. With each child, and each horse, comes a new story.

“There was one student,” says Alison Pewett, an instructor, and director of the “Saddle Up” program there. “The first couple of lessons she was really timid. She enjoyed training the horses, but she was struggling with her confidence and her focus.

“So we took Fox (one of the horses), who was losing his eyesight and was really nervous. We were trying to teach him to ‘join up’ with someone. … (The student) did the groundwork, and eventually Fox finally joined up with her, put his forehead on her back, and she got to see this really perfect connection.

“He followed her everywhere she went.”

It’s part of the mission of the place, which has existed in its current form since 2009. In 2012, according to director Joy O’Neal, The Red Barn served roughly 100 children per week, all of them with “special circumstances” of some kind.

“Kids with physical, emotional and cognitive disabilities, as well as at-risk, disadvantaged or any other special circumstances,” she said. “A lot of times they are referred through a counselor, an at-risk intervention center or from the community at large.

“We have some moms who drive an hour one way, just so their child can be on a horse for 20 minutes.”

The story of the land itself belongs to Anita Cowart, a Leeds native who managed a riding center called Heathermoor on the property. A car accident claimed Cowart’s daughter, according to O’Neal, almost 40 years ago.

“In Scripture it says that everything that is taken from us will be returned a hundredfold (Mark 10:30),” O’Neal said. “So Anita was driving home from UAB, and she was pretty mad at God. And she said, ‘OK, You took one daughter from me. I expect not 100 daughters, but 1,000 — tens of thousands.’

“One by one, the children started coming, just because they wanted to be with the horses.”

O’Neal said her children were part of that group at Heathermoor, and that eventually led her to be part of the mission.

“I didn’t grow up around horses,” she said. “But I saw that it could make a difference.

“(Anita) has been one of my best friends. We used to dream about having a place like this.”

The mission actually began in 2006, called “Spirit of Hope” and located in Wilsonville, in Shelby County. O’Neal said they modeled the place after the Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch, in Oregon.

When they moved to their current site, it was 14 acres, with five stables.

“We thought that would be plenty,” she said. “But we just grew and grew.”

Currently 15 horses live at The Red Barn, and O’Neal said all of them have a story of “special circumstances,” just as the students do. The staff consists of 13 different people, some who work part time, and a crop of volunteers.

“The volunteers make all the difference in the world,” O’Neal said. “They’re like an extended family for the kids who come here.

“A lot of the kids don’t have a family of their own. Our volunteers help to fill that gap.”

Those volunteers are eager to share what makes the experience so unique.

“Parents who have never seen their children achieve things come here,” said Allison Morhard, a volunteer who was cleaning a saddle while she talked. “Everyday we see parents welling up, seeing the potential their children have.”

Paula Brown, a lesson assistant, told of one student who was afraid of the horses at first.

“We worked with her a lot,” Brown said. “Her mom was videoing her, and she turned and said, ‘Look at me! I’m not scared!’”

The Red Barn does ask its students “who can afford it” to pay riding fees for its programs. Still, O’Neal said those fees only cover around 20 percent of the budget there, and virtually everything else comes from private donations.

“We don’t turn anyone away if they can’t pay,” she said.

Some of those stories are spreading through the community, as well. At the annual banquet for the members of the Leeds Area Chamber of Commerce, The Red Barn was honored as Organization of the Year.

“We are motivated,” O’Neal said. “We want to take these relationships and use them to share God’s faith hope and love with all the kids, and to be their extended family.”

The Red Barn is located at 2700 Bailey Road, in Leeds. For more information, contact Joy O’Neal at 205-223-1362, visit theredbarn.org, or find them on Facebook.

Contact Will Heath at wheath@thestclairtimes.com.