Julia Hanson’s passion for horses led her to volunteer at Castro Valley’s SonRise Equestrian Foundation to fulfill her 60-hour Anawim project requirement.
She couldn’t have predicted how the experience at the non-profit therapeutic riding program that serves children with special needs would impact her and inspire her to volunteer more than 200 additional hours at the site as well as lead her to consider equine science/equine therapy as a college major.
Julia stumbled upon SonRise by chance, while at a vocal lesson. “My coach usually has a bunch of playbills on his piano, but that day I noticed a flier for an annual fundraiser being held for SonRise,” she said. “It looked like an amazing place.”
Julia has assisted with all four SonRise programs – “In the Saddle,” an assisted back riding program for children facing physical and developmental challenges; “Team Equine,” for children facing social and emotional challenges; “Traveling Tails,” which brings miniature horses into children’s hospice, care homes and hospitals to visit children who are near the end of life or facing serious medical issues; and “Helping Hands,” which provides opportunities for teen volunteers to learn ranch chores alongside teens who may be facing challenges such as high-functioning special needs, bullying or difficult times at home.
“This has really opened my eyes to how much this kind of therapy helps kids – both physically and emotionally,” she said. “Sometimes the kids will come in mad or sad, but as they start to work with the horses they light up and really make a connection. It’s so heartwarming to see the kids realize they can do more than what society has told them because of their disability. At SonRise the kids are awe-inspiring.”
Julia recalled a specific session with a young girl who has a growth disorder and looks much younger than her age. Prepared to offer intensive assistance, Julia was surprised by the skill level demonstrated by the girl. “She was much more advanced than any of the other kids I had worked with and had this amazing energy about her. It was so amazing to watch – I couldn’t stop smiling the entire time I was working with her,” she said.
Julia says the O’Dowd Service Learning program opportunities are life-changing. “We get to learn important life skills and develop abilities that we can’t in a classroom,” she said. “Everyone has a different experience – depending on where they volunteer and the population they work with – but all of the experiences are empowering.”
Julia is continuing to volunteer at SonRise as often as possible. “It doesn’t feel like work. It’s fun and fulfilling,” she said.