- November 17, 2016
Amber Wilkison has had an extensive career as a Girl Scout — 14 years.
From the time she was a 5-year-old Daisy Scout to now — a Class of 2020 graduate of West Orange High School — Wilkison has been passionate about the organization with which she has spend most of her life.
As an Ambassador Girl Scout, the Ocoee resident has been working toward the Gold Award, something only 6% of Girl Scouts achieve each year.
Girl Scout Seniors and Ambassadors who earn the Gold Award complete a project that drives lasting change in their community.
For Wilkison, she found inspiration for her Gold Award project in something she’s found joy in for years. The 18-year-old always loved horses and has taken riding lessons for years. It was both a hobby and a form of relaxation for her, and over the course of her involvement with horses, she learned about equine therapy.
“When I started the project, it seemed like such a big and overwhelming build to take on, but knowing how much this training facility would benefit the community, it motivated me to embrace the challenge and get it done.” — Amber Wilkison
“I was able to witness how much equine therapy helped people who were physically or emotionally challenged,” she said. “I knew that Soul Haven Ranch took their minis on therapy visits to many local areas, and (I) wanted to contribute to expanding the capacity Susan Nastasi’s Soul Haven Ranch could provide in our community.”
Soul Haven Ranch's miniature therapy horses program serves children with special needs, hospitals, assisted-living and nursing facilities, hospice patients and veterans.
The program also is seeking volunteers at least 16 years of age to become registered handlers and help serve the community. That's where the training facility comes in.
Wilkison met with Nastasi to talk about her ideas and anything Soul Haven Ranch needed. She said Nastasi told her she would love to have a training facility built to open up the opportunity for more people to work with the miniature horses and participate in a program to become a certified pet handlers.
“In turn, more individuals could participate in taking the horses on voluntary pet therapy visits, as she has more requests than she can accommodate,” Wilkison said. “Susan explained about the need for the horses to be desensitized from noises and objects that make them nervous or could spook them so that they remain calm while out on visits or attending community events. We drafted out a designated placement area on Susan’s ranch to build the training center and the training-course activities the horses would be taken through.”
After receiving approval from the Girl Scout Council, Wilkison met with Nastasi to finalize the plan. She began gathering the supplies needed using the funds she had earned from Girl Scout cookie sales, as well as recruiting help with the physical labor required.
“I am very grateful for a very supportive business community,” she said. “The manager at the Lowe’s of Winter Garden was able to give me a very generous discount on the fencing materials, and Florida Metal Craft on Dillard Street greatly discounted the cost of making the 36-by-24-inch aluminum sign for the training center.”
She received help from her father, John, and older brother, Nolan, in constructing the 120-by-30-foot fenced area. The training center includes various obstacles that handlers and the miniature horses can practice going through. It took dozens of hours of work, but the project was rewarding for Wilkison.
“I am not well-versed in construction, so my dad helped me learn about measurements, joining fence railing, digging and securing the posts, and construction of the framed entrance to the training center,” she said. “It was a true labor of love, and I thank them tremendously for all of their help.”
Building began on May 23, with completion on June 18 with the hanging of the training-center sign. Wilkison was happy to apply the skills she’s learned through Girl Scouts — and from her mother, Denise, also her troop leader — to create something that will be used and cherished for years to come.
“When I started the project, it seemed like such a big and overwhelming build to take on, but knowing how much this training facility would benefit the community, it motivated me to embrace the challenge and get it done,” she said. “Now that I can stand back and look at how the training center turned out and see how very happy Susan is with the results, it is a very rewarding accomplishment that I will always be proud of. I hope that people in our community will get involved in Susan’s pet therapy program and share even more therapy love among the many individuals in our community that appreciate these on-site miniature horse visits.”