The Hope for Heroes Equine Therapy center in Yelm will receive some support within the next several weeks in the form of a much needed grant worth $70,000.
The grant was supported by Congresswoman Marilyn Strickland, who worked with the Substance Abuse and Mental Health Services Administration (SAMHSA) to secure the funding.
Bob Woelk, with Hope for Heroes, said the grant will be used to pay the salary of their instructor, which was formerly a volunteer role, and will be used to pay for facility expenses.
“It’s a big banner year to have this grant come to us,” Woelk said. “It’s going to help us tremendously. … Those expenses will directly be spent serving the veterans and active duty personnel that come here for this program.”
Woelk said the process of receiving the grant began last March when he connected with Strickland’s office. He said that Strickland, along with Yelm Mayor Joe DePinto, attended a Hope for Heroes session to observe their horse therapy program.
Woelk said Strickland was able to see the value in equine therapy and also learned about the financial straits of Hope for Heroes. Months later in the early summer, Strickland initiated the Community Funding Grant which impacted several community programs funded through her office, including Hope for Heroes, according to Woelk.
Then in December 2022, the grant package was approved by the House and the Senate, Woelk said. In early February, Woelk was contacted by SAMHSA and confirmed the program will receive the grant. He’s hopeful Hope for Heroes will receive the funding in the next several weeks.
“Until this year, never had a full budget supported with funding, and because of that we’ve been operating on 100% volunteer labor. Most business people know you can’t operate forever on volunteers, especially when the instructors need to put food on the table,” Woelk said. “Now we’re able to pay a full time instructor for their time supporting all of our classes. It’s a big impact on the future viability of the program to be able to have a paid instructor that we can rely on.”
Hope for Heroes currently serves between 45 to 60 participants on a weekly basis during the 90 minute classes they offer three days a week. The organization offers four different eight week semesters throughout the year.
In anticipation of the incoming grant, Hope for Heroes hired a full time instructor with funding they had prior to the grant. After they made the hire, the first horse therapy classes of the year began in mid-January. There are currently 45 participants, and Woelk said around two-thirds of the participants are retired veterans, while the remaining participants are active duty.
“We feel that our future viability is guaranteed, one might say, because we’re not going to have to shut down in the future for a lack of funding, which has been our nemesis for the last five years we’ve been operating,” Woelk said. “We’ve had a lot of loyal volunteers helping to make the program happen, but the key ingredient for us is to have a talented horse instructor that can instruct all of our classes.”
Woelk added that most participants at Hope for Heroes have received recommendations from veterans that have used this program in the past.
Horse therapy is highly effective to help with PTSD, Woelk said, as the horses can detect anxiety in humans to a “high degree.” He said as soon as an individual with high anxiety approaches a horse, the horse senses the anxiety and reacts to it by becoming anxious itself.
“An anxious horse is hard to work with, so we suggest to the participant that they try different things on their own to reduce their anxiety, like taking deep breaths and stretching out their shoulder muscles,” Woelk said. “The dynamic we’re providing is one of immediate biofeedback from the horse to the person on their anxiety levels. This helps the participant to relearn and self manage their anxiety, which is what PTSD is all about. It’s exactly the kind of therapy they need to regain control over their internal anxiety issues.”
Woelk said the participants then learn and eventually apply different coping skills. After four to six weeks, Woelk said he sees a big change in the disposition of participants at Hope for Heroes.
“We participated in university research with Baylor University in Texas back in 2015. That research was done at four different horse centers using our published curriculum,” Woelk said. “It resulted in a 50% reduction in PTSD symptoms after just eight weeks of working with a horse. We feel that kind of result places us as a major solution to the veteran suicide epidemic, where 20 veterans are committing suicide every day in our country.”
For more information about Hope for Heroes, visit their website at www.hope4heroesconsulting.org. They are located at 14528 Avis Lane SE in Yelm.