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The Milton Horse

Opinion: Special needs individuals find work, joy and skills on Milton horse farm

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The Milton Horse: Lionheart WORKS

A participant in the Lionheart WORKS program, pictured at the Rich family's farm in August.

Being part of an equestrian community is about more than horse shows and joy rides. It’s also about embracing life in picturesque settings and even the dirty work — cleaning stalls, putting out hay, cleaning water buckets and the like.

That is exactly what these neurodiverse young men from Lionheart WORKS do every week on the Rich family’s farm off Bethany Way. They’re good at it, enjoy it, and are growing from the experience.

“Being out in the environment in beautiful Milton is incredible for our young adults,” said Heather Wagner, director of Lionheart WORKS. “We have a lot that love to be outside working.”

Lionheart WORKS is the vocational training program of the Lionheart Life Center, which serves individuals with autism or other similar neurological issues. The WORKS program began in 2015 to give the young adults that came out of The Lionheart School exposure to job experiences that suit their abilities, talents and passions.

Each participant starts as an unpaid intern and goes to a worksite accompanied by a coach from Lionheart WORKS. The goal is for them to progress enough to work largely independently and, when they do, to get paid. Long-term, this program is designed for Lionheart’s young adults to appreciate a job and learn how to do it (and others like it) well.

That’s what happened with one of the Rich family’s first Lionheart workers. When Tony, the current chair of the Milton Equestrian Committee, and his wife Sara purchased their farm, they did so hoping it somehow, someway could be utilized by people in the special-needs community. A friend introduced them to Lionheart, which led to some assistants coming to their property.

One young man especially took to the job, excelling and becoming independent enough that he no longer needed a coach. He ended up working at the Bethany Way farm five days a week, caring for horses and doing “all the things that we farm owners have to do all the time,” Rich said. And when he moved to Florida, he brought what he’d learned in Milton with him.

“It’s a marketable skillset,” Rich said of farm work. “It’s something that they can take from our barn, and they can go anywhere.”

The young men working one recent sweltering morning along Bethany Way were accompanied by a coach, at least for now. Rich noted one is particularly adept at landscaping, a positive that he appreciates and expects other employers would, too.

Wagner noted several other Lionheart WORKS young adults work at a nearby donkey farm. Yet every person is different, which is why finding a good match is so important. Anyone who thinks their place of employment might be a good fit can go to www.Lionheartworks.com or call 678-691-7922.

“First, … we get to know the individual. And we find out from them what their goals are and what [are] their loves, their hobbies, [and] interests,” Wagner said. “And we help them think of where would be their dream place to offer their gifts to the community.”

The Rich family appreciates what Lionheart and its workers have provided them, including the chance to get to know such remarkable people.

“They’re just like the rest of us,” said Tony Rich. “We all have God-given talents and skills and desires and interests.”