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West Orange Times & Observer Thursday, May 16, 2019 1 month ago

Local high school juniors developing animal therapy club, training facility

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Two Girl Scouts from Troop 4571 are collaborating to create an animal therapy club at Windermere High School and horse-training facility at SOUL Haven Ranch.
by: Gabby Baquero News Editor

Thanks to two local animal-loving girl scouts, Windermere High School will host an animal therapy club in the Fall, and Soul Haven Ranch in Winter Garden will soon house a miniature horse-training facility.

Windermere High junior Karlen Randle and West Orange High junior Amber Wilkison, two girl scouts from Troop 4571, are spearheading the individual community projects, which will earn them their Gold Awards – the highest award a Girl Scout can receive.

Wilkison is taking the lead on fundraising and building a horse-training facility for anyone wishing to earn their certification as a registered miniature therapy horse handler, while Randle is spearheading the formation of the Soul Buddies animal Therapy Club at Windermere High School.

Although the high school juniors had been in the same girl scout troop for nearly 15 years, they had never met before individually reaching out to pitch their community project ideas to Susan Nastasi, who owns and operates SOUL Haven Ranch.

“We’re looking for people who have a passion for animals, predominantly horses,” Nastasi said. “People who love animals and want to serve others. So the idea of the program is to take the miniature horses out and serve the community’s population of children with special needs, geriatrics, hospice, and veterans with PTSD. But after about a little over two years, I have grown the base of volunteer handlers by about only three. So then Karlen called me up and said 'Hey, I've been following your Facebook page for about six months and I want to learn more about your volunteer program to create a club.’ And we went from there.”

Wilkison later went to Nastasi with a five-page proposal to expand the animal therapy program by adding rabbits. Nastasi proposed another idea that would help support Karlen’s community project: an animal therapy training facility on SOUL Haven Ranch that would support the Soul Buddies Animal Therapy Club.

“And she said yes, so her project is going to be that,” she said. “So it’s just, honestly, an amazing, collaborative story of these two young people who didn't even talk to one another, who had been on the same girl scout troop for 15 years and are now working together to build this for the community.”

Randle hopes to launch the Soul Buddies Animal therapy club in the Fall.

"I just think that working with animals is a really fun idea, and it's a fun project to do,” Randle said. “I’ve got lots of people that are interested in it. And we're hoping to get the horses on campus at some point for maybe 30 minutes to an hour. Maybe not this year, but maybe next year, to provide stress relief during finals and stuff. So not only will it help, you know, students be involved within the community, but it also will benefit people students who aren't actually in the club."

Nastasi said they plan to have the club meet weekly, with three weeks of the months dedicated to training and working directly with the horses and developing relationships, and one week reserved for visiting different facilities in the West Orange community with the miniature horses.

Wilkison’s miniature horse training facility, which she hopes to have completed in November, will provide space to facilitate all the training for the members of the future club.

“The miniature horse training facility will not only help desensitize and train the mini horses, but it'll help provide a dedicated space for people aspiring to get their certification to become a handler through Pet Partners,” Wilson said. The facility will let them have their own space to work with the animals and learn how to train them so that they can be taken into indoor spaces, like nursing homes or hospitals. … Horses get spooked easily, and a lot of different things could startle them and they freak out, but you can't have that when you bring them around other people. So you have to desensitize them. And this facility will have these different stations and obstacle and allow Soul Buddies club members to work with the horses on-on-one.”

Wilkison said she will be working with local community businesses to see if they're willing to donate any of the materials she’ll need to complete the project. 

She will then fundraise to cover any material or construction expenses not already funded by selling tickets to the community inviting them to spend time with the horses. All the profits will go toward her project.

Gabby is the news editor for the West Orange Times and Windermere Observer newspapers.┬áHave a┬ástory tip? Contact her at (352) 448-5856 or at [email protected]....

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