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Stories from the Myrtle Beach Sun News
story & photos by Caroline Wright

Financial woes threaten special riding center
December 28, 2000

Rich Personna grooms BJ the quarterhorse under the watchful eye of instructor Heather Ruvalcaba Van Dyke

As a sergeant in the Marines, Rich Personna of Murrells Inlet was once in superb physical condition. He could do 80 sit-ups and 20 pull-ups in two minutes, followed by a 3-mile run in 18 minutes.

In 1990, four years after his honorable discharge, Personna was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis, a disease of the central nervous system.

Now confined to a wheelchair, the 36-year-old tries to remain active. He is raising three young sons as a single father and expects to graduate from Horry-Georgetown Technical College in May.

And this month, he began hippotherapy sessions at Dream Catchers Therapeutic Riding Center, located at the Beaver Dam Equestrian Center in the Baker's Chapel area of Conway.

"These horses are so beautiful," Personna said after an afternoon ride on B.J., a quarterhorse at the center. Though his prior riding experience is limited to summer camp in upstate New York, Personna is fast becoming an enthusiastic horse lover. He hopes to eventually volunteer at Dream Catchers, perhaps as a groomer.

"Today I got to brush B.J. a little bit. I felt such - it's almost like love," he said. "I care about that animal and I want to come back all the time."

Financial problems

Personna may never get the chance to realize his dreams of volunteering at Dream Catchers. The center has been in its new home for less than a year, but financial difficulties threaten its existence.

Owner Ann Van Dyke explained the costs involved in running the center. She outlined the costs of boarding six horses, four of them leased and two donated. She also mentioned $1,000 a year for medical and riders' insurance, salary for an instructor who is certified by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, and other bills.

"It's pretty complicated, but if we can keep this thing going, it's unbelievable what it will do," she said.

The budget for the Dream Catchers was about $26,000 this past year. Amid its financial woes, the center has set a number goals for 2001. Van Dyke estimates that a total of $50,000 is needed to pay for the center's costs and implement the new programs.

For starters, a scholarship fund would enable students with no other tuition sources to continue lessons at Dream Catchers. Van Dyke mentioned a teen-ager in the program who suffered severe injuries after falling out of the back of a pickup truck. She is concerned that cuts in the budget of Horry County Disabilities and Special Needs will end tuition payments for the teen.

Van Dyke also hopes to add a cart-driving program to the center's activities. "We've got people who can't sit on a horse but they could get in a cart and drive," she said. "That takes three years to set up, and we'd have to buy a cart and pay somebody to train an instructor."

A third program would allow children in special education to ride as part of the school curriculum. Dream Catchers has applied to the Senior PGA Tour for financial assistance, but Van Dyke said the center must not rely on the tour as a sole source of support. "We won't know until June 2001, and there are a lot of nonprofit [organizations] going for money from them," she said. "If we could get corporate sponsors at $5,000 a year, we would put their name on the stationery. When I go somewhere, I'll put their name up in lights. We need substantial donations."

Rich is carefully placed on BJ's back by Dream Catchers staff and volunteers

Special therapy

Hippotherapy, which means "treatment with the help of the horse," employs the multidimensional movement of horseback riding to help people with movement dysfunction. Hippotherapy simulates the human gait, especially the movement of the hips and pelvis, to improve balance, posture, mobility and communication.

Personna, now in the secondary progressive stages of the disease, can already feel the benefits of hippotherapy after just a few sessions. "When I'm riding, I'm working every muscle in my body," he said.

Julie Booth, a 37-year-old Loris woman who suffered a severe head injury in a car accident when she was 16, has been riding at the center for almost two years. "She's come a long way," said her mother, Sylvia Booth. "It's helped her balance. It helps her hips, and she's not as stiff."

The emotional benefits are as important as the physical ones. "As far as outside activity, because of her condition, there's not much she can do," Sylvia Booth said. "She really looks forward to this. It's a worthwhile and rewarding program, and I hope they can keep it going."

For many months, Van Dyke has tapped her own funds to keep Dream Catchers afloat. Though she loves her work for the center, her resources are limited. "I consider this a Christian ministry. Every time I lose money, I pray, and it falls out of the sky. But I think we've got to start planning where it's coming from," she said.

What will happen if Dream Catchers can't raise funds to cover its expenses? "We will end up closing, because I can't keep supporting this," she said.

For information on Dream Catchers Therapeutic Riding Center, call 365-9550. Tax-deductible donations may be sent to Dream Catchers, 6200 Adrian Parkway, Conway 29526.


Caroline Wright is a freelance writer. She can be reached via e-mail at c@wrightforyou.com or by phone at 347-5634.