By Chris Hendrickson, Monitor
From executive directors to administrative assistants and everything in between, these local volunteers were not afraid to get their hands dirty.
H3 Horses Healing Heroes President Arleen Gibson welcomed 28 volunteers from Community Transit to her Monroe property on Saturday to assist her with repairs and general maintenance. The work was provided to her through United Way of Snohomish County’s Day of Caring event, a yearly event that coordinates volunteer teams and pairs them up with local organizations, as a way of supporting Snohomish County’s nonprofit agencies.
Community Transit chose Gibson’s H3, a not-for-profit business dedicated to using horses as a method of therapy for veterans dealing with post-traumatic stress injury, as their project for 2013.
This year marked the twentieth anniversary of United Way’s Day of Caring program, a nationwide event.
United Way Vice President of Resource Development Karen Crowley spent Saturday working right alongside the Community Transit volunteers. Crowley stated that the Day of Caring event is all about getting people out into communities, getting active and getting engaged.
“It’s this wonderful outpouring of, ‘there’s work to be done, let’s get together and do it,’” said Crowley.
Cities and different organizations throughout Snohomish County get involved each year.
“It’s businesses like Community Transit that are willing to pull together teams to do this,” said Crowley.
The two-day event took place on Friday and Saturday, and included 41 different projects throughout Snohomish County which benefited 30 different organizations and cities. Over 850 volunteers participated, forming 73 different teams who tackled a widespread variety of assignments.
Nonprofits, like Gibson’s H3, often lack the necessary resources and extra funding that is needed to accomplish simple repairs and tasks that go above and beyond the normal day-to-day business operating expenses.
Gibson started H3 with her sister, Joyce Coombs, last year after retiring from over 20 years as an electrical contractor. Their mission is to use a method of therapy known as Equine Assisted Psychotherapy to help veterans suffering from post-traumatic stress as well as traumatic brain injuries.
Having had a 20-year history of caring for horses, Gibson knew of their ability to sooth and bond with humans.
“You don’t know what a hug is until a horse hugs you,” said Gibson. “You can just be feeling so dejected, and you stand up next to this huge animal that just drops its head down.”
Gibson explained that, at that point, all you want to do is reach up and put your arms around its neck.
The vision for her business had begun to take shape after she was given the opportunity in January of 2012 to attend a seminar about military post-traumatic stress injury. The presentation was put on by Jerry Gladek, a Veterans’ Service Officer in Snohomish County.
At the seminar, Gibson was struck by a video that was shown about a soldier suffering from post-traumatic stress injury. She could relate to him, having come from a military family herself. Gibson’s father, a World War II veteran, suffered from the disorder.
Gibson began experiencing a strong desire to help soldiers who are afflicted with stress and other brain injuries stemming from trauma. And she wanted to use horses to help them.
“I felt a really strong pull to help our soldiers, and I knew that horses could do this,” said Gibson.
In March of 2012, she officially closed the doors on Voltage, her electrical contracting company, and began conducting research into starting a nonprofit. She reached out to Gladek.
“I told him, ‘I went to your seminar, and I would like to help our soldiers. I have this property, and I don’t know how it’s all going to work out, but I keep hearing that our soldiers are committing suicide from PTSD and I have this really peaceful place. I want to offer this,’” said Gibson.
She next met with Sultan mayor and entrepreneurial advocate Carolyn Eslick and presented her idea. Both Eslick and Gladek supported her vision and currently serve on H3’s Board of Directors.
Having set the wheels firmly in motion, Gibson soon received word of two 8-year-old miniature horses named Arby and Dre that were available for adoption. The owner was looking for a good home for the pair, along with another horse, a full-size, 16-year-old Arabian gelding named Skeeter.
The horses were brought home to H3 in September 2012, and her dream started to become reality.
Gibson and Coombs operate H3 out of Gibson’s home which is situated on 50-acres located on Fern Bluff Road, between Monroe and Sultan. Her property includes a large deck, Japanese koi pond, garden area, gazebo, a barn, and of course, her coworkers; Arby, Dre, Skeeter, and her newest addition, a 2-year-old mustang named Aiden.
Formalizing her passion for the techniques of Equine Assisted Psychotherapy, in March of this year Gibson became certified as an Equine Specialist through the Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association.
Gibson enjoys being a facilitator of this form of therapy, and appreciates watching it work.
Sultan resident Michael Bradshaw-Heiberg is a U.S. Army Veteran who served in both Desert Shield and Desert Storm during the first Gulf War. He suffers from post-traumatic stress injury and has had the opportunity to work with Gibson and her horses at H3.
“War teaches you a lot,” said 45-year-old Bradshaw-Heiberg. “You experience things that people shouldn’t have to experience.”
His first exercise at H3 was to put a halter onto one of the miniature horses; something he had never done before. He was given the opportunity to do this without any instruction, but by simply taking the harness and independently figuring out the best way to approach the horse and accomplish the task. Although his experience with horses was minimal, Bradshaw-Heiberg was successful.
“It was really simple,” said Bradshaw-Heiberg.
Gibson was there to oversee, but not necessarily to control or take over the interaction.
“She’s very good with me and the horses,” said Bradshaw-Heiberg. “She’s very calming.”
He stressed the importance of not feeling forced into doing things.
“A lot of veterans, that’s what they need,” explained Bradshaw-Heiberg. “They need to be with someone who isn’t going to put pressure on them. The last thing we want is pressure.”
“When I’m uptight, it’s a nice place to go and calm down,” he continued.
This is a key aspect of Equine Therapy; providing a relaxing atmosphere and allowing the individual, at their own pace, to form a non-verbal relationship with a horse that can eventually become an integral part of the healing process.
The concept of using horses to care for veterans was one of the things that attracted Community Transit to Gibson’s project and inspired them to choose it for their volunteer outreach.
“We felt that the wounded warrior project was not only an opportunity for us to lend our skills and effort, but also a chance to honor our veterans for their selfless service,” said Sue Masel, Co-Chair of Day of Caring for Community Transit. “Pairing horses in the healing process was especially appealing to us.”
The Community Transit volunteers’ work included cleaning, sealing and repairing the barn roof; repairing fencing near the barn, across the field and in the paddock area; moving a drain pipe and repairing the barn stairwell. They moved an electrical fence grounding system and a large pile of wood shavings and cleared away hundreds of feet of blackberry bramble, at times utilizing heavy equipment for particularly dense areas.
Community Transit has been participating in Day of Caring for 19 years.
A lunch of spaghetti and meatballs, coordinated and cooked by Sultan resident Ruth Shapovalov, was served to the volunteers by friends of Gibson.
“The day was exciting, awesome and humbling. I was a little scared but everything went beautifully,” said Gibson. “If you ever need your faith in humanity restored, just witness the volunteers from Community Transit who signed up for United Way’s Day of Caring, helping H3 with our numerous projects. They came with their hands and hearts.”
Gibson’s future goals include acquiring additional horses, increasing her work with veterans and their families, and obtaining her 501c3 status which will enable her to grow and expand her resources.
Other Day of Caring projects took place in Monroe during this year’s event. On Friday, approximately 20 volunteers from the Everett Clinic worked with Housing Hope on a home building project in the Rose Park area. Workers assisted with framing, siding and miscellaneous site cleanup.
On Saturday, a dozen volunteers from the city of Monroe, the American Girl clothing store and Frontier Communications collected food for the Sky Valley Food Bank.
For more information on H3 Horses Healing Heroes, please visit their Facebook page at: https://www.facebook.com/h3horseshealingheroes.