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Students and horses work to change lives

The New Life Ranch program, Right Lead, will begin a new semester of serving at-risk children by way of horsemanship next week.

John Brown University students will visit the ranch for two hours each week and mentor first through 12th graders by using horses to teach them how to love and receive love.

The program pairs up every child with a horse and mentor that he or she will work with throughout the semester. Kerri Brown, Right Lead founder, created the program in 1998 with the assumption that children connect well with animals. As the program developed, Brown discovered that at-risk children in particular open up to others when around horses.

Sophomore Melissa Lloyd volunteered with Right Lead during her freshman year and said watching the bond form between a child and horse astounded her.

“Something special happens when a child is with a horse,” Lloyd said.

Lloyd said her mentee’s personality transformed whenever she came in contact with her horse.

“My mentee had learning disabilities, and she was very hyperactive and a little bit slower than all the others,” Lloyd said. “When she would see Penny the horse, she would just run up to her and grab her face and just look at her big eyes. My mentee would just calm down. It was like a peace. She loved Penny.”

Each session begins with conversations between the children and mentors while they groom and saddle their horses. The next half-hour is dedicated to a lesson in horsemanship, after which everyone comes together for the weekly Bible study. The session ends after students and mentors paired up and discussed the Bible study lesson during a half-hour of one-on-one time.

Mentors paired with younger children spend the majority of their time playing games. Their job description consists simply of having fun with them.

Mentoring high school students requires a different approach.

“In high school, the kids aren’t as receptive to having a mentor,” said junior Lynnette McClarty, the leader of the University’s Right Lead ministry. “It takes on a more serious tone. You’re their friend, but important issues such as, ‘why shouldn’t I get drunk or have sex with my boyfriend’ come up. You connect with them by listening mostly. Asking what’s going in their lives and accepting them even if they don’t accept you.”

Mentors cited patience as a critical characteristic for mentors to have.

“There’s not a lot of instant gratification,” McClarty said.

Sophomore Joshua Fritz said mentors must learn to trust that God uses them even when they do not see any changes in the lives of their mentees.

“A lot of times with the students I’d be like, ‘I don’t feel like I’m getting across to this kid at all. I don’t feel like he’s listening. I don’t feel like I’m doing anything at all,’” Fritz said.

Fritz said God frequently surprised him by working in those moments.

“There’s a kid this last semester that wouldn’t show up very often,” Fritz said. “He was all over the place. Very hyperactive. Bouncing off the walls. Then one week, he started rattling off some of the memory verses we learned. He started talking about lessons we learned two weeks ago. He was getting something from it.”

Fritz said he learned through that experience to never assume God is not working in particularly difficult situations.

“I feel like a lot of times when we feel like God’s not teaching anybody is when He’s teaching people the most,” Fritz said. “They might just not be outwardly showing it.”

Sometimes the children never outwardly show any receptivity, and mentors have to simply trust their efforts are not wasted.

“I have to believe that seed will grow into what it’s supposed to later on down the road,” McClarty said. “I have to be like, ‘all right Lord, I’ve done my part. Now the rest is in your hands.’”

Looking back on past semesters of serving with the Right Lead, mentors said God used the program to deepen their relationships with Him.

“Some days I didn’t feel like anything significant happened,” sophomore Makayla Schultz said. “It grew my faith, trusting that God would fill in gaps that I left. That even if my words fell short, that He would still use even my presence of just being there for her as a testimony of His love.”