At the Louisville Equestrian Center, Diane Frederick keeps a binder full of colorful horse pictures and letters children wrote to the horses they have ridden. The executive director of the nonprofit Horses Offering Opportunities for the Future (HOOF) selects a letter written by Jenae,* a member of The Cabbage Patch Settlement House, and reads it aloud.
“I love you so much because I move with you when we ride. It’s like no one else is there. I feel like I’m in control.” Jenae met her horse during The Cabbage Patch’s summer camp program, which provides at-risk Louisville children with education and youth development experiences. Through its partnership with HOOF, The Patch presents horse stewardship as an opportunity to reinforce values like respect, empathy, leadership and community responsibility.
“We don’t ask them to tell the horses that they love them,” Frederick says. “We just ask them to write a letter to their horse. But they all mention love. I call these the love letters. No matter what is going on in Jenae’s life, she is in control when she is on the horse. That is huge for her.”
“I also love to ride you because we’re like one when we ride,” the love letter continues. “You were the first horse I kissed on the head, and you let me. I love to be around you, and I know you love me. I will try and visit soon. You’ve encouraged me to do a lot. I love you and will never forget you.”
Frederick first heard about The Cabbage Patch Settlement House through one of HOOF’s board members. It seemed like a natural fit for the two organizations to work together, as HOOF essentially has the same goals and objectives as The Cabbage Patch. Both strive to equip and empower at-risk children, youth and their families to be self-sufficient by helping them maximize their potential. HOOF uses horses to provide experiential learning for the youth, and The Patch integrates programs that combine recreation/youth development with educational opportunities. Partnering for the summer horse camp, the two foster self-esteem in each child who climbs into the saddle.
“Horses are powerful teachers,” Frederick says. “Many children are timid when they first approach the horses, but you can see their confidence rise from the beginning of the day to the end of the day. These children learn that they can trust the horse, that they are powerful on the horse.”
The Patch’s Director of Programs Rod Napier, a Cabbage Patch alumnus who has been with the organization for 35 years, now lives on a Henry County farm with horses of his own. He remembers how camping trips and other “outside the box” experiences of his own childhood Cabbage Patch days taught lessons that he never would have learned in a classroom.
“When we were approached by HOOF, I was excited because horsemanship helps children develop the confidence to respond to adversity in a healthy, constructive manner,” Napier says. “This helps them prepare to succeed in school, at work and in all situations, no matter where they come from or what’s happening around them.”
“I didn’t even need to explain the benefits of horses to Rod,” Frederick says. “He understands how therapeutic they can be.”
By the end of the 40 hours of instruction and riding, campers have improved in their ability to ride safely and correctly. Their success results in enhanced self-esteem and confidence that translates to academic, social and professional settings.
HOOF began working with The Cabbage Patch in 2011. The camp offers an environment new to the children. The Cabbage Patch is located in Old Louisville, and most of the organization’s members live within 3 miles of the facility. The children are accustomed to urban environments, particularly in the West End, where green space is scarce.
Camps and field trips are valuable incentives that help inspire good behavior in Patch members during regular on-site programming. HOOF camp is a particularly good motivator because the children begin to feel responsible for their horses.
“HOOF is really good about getting each kid a horse that is a good match in terms of size and personality,” says Jamayle West, a recreation and youth development specialist for The Cabbage Patch. “After grooming the horse and taking care of it, a child will worry what would happen to his horse if he was not allowed to go to camp. That sense of ownership shows the child that his behavior has consequences that affect others.”
Antonio, a Cabbage Patch member who is now a counselor in training, is keenly aware of the transformative power of The Patch’s supportive environment at HOOF camp and beyond.
“Friendship is important at HOOF camp,” he says. “For the first few days, there were kids who were nervous, but the others lifted them up.”
A teachable moment at camp provided just the opportunity for a child to be an example in courage while her friends provided support. “What’s the worst thing that could happen on the horse?” West asks. “You fall off. That’s what most of the kids are afraid of.” And a fall is exactly what happened to one HOOF camp participant one afternoon, when a horse named Troubadour tripped. All eyes were on her as the fellow campers waited to see what would happen next—what would happen after their worst fear came true. Fear can be a strong deterrent to an at-risk child working to achieve goals.
After the fall, camp leaders rallied around the young girl and encouraged her to persevere. She chose to sit out a short lesson and regroup, but in the end, she found the bravery to get back on Troubadour. By the end of the week, that shy young girl had risen to be the hero among the campers. She was formally recognized for her courage during the end-of-camp award celebration. It may have been the first time that child had ever won anything.
Many children come to The Cabbage Patch to escape negative influences at home or in their neighborhoods, and opportunities like HOOF camp offer a safe learning environment.
“I don’t focus on what kids have going on at home,” West says. “At the Equestrian Center, the playing field is level. Some of these kids are horse show-ready by the end of camp!”
One year, The Patch offered a day camp that included a visit to Churchill Downs. The children who had participated in HOOF were excited to identify the types of horses they saw there.
“We create a sense of pride,” Napier says. “In themselves, in the Kentucky horse culture. It leads to a lifetime of confidence and an interest in giving back. We invest in these kids, and they want to make their community a better place.”
*Name changed for privacy
The Cabbage Patch Way
In The Cabbage Patch’s Louisville service area, 59 percent of children live in poverty, with 65 percent of households earning less than $30,000 per year. Fifty-four percent of those 25 or older have a high school equivalency education or less.
The Cabbage Patch philosophy for changing those statistics stems from a statement made by the late Roosevelt Chin, a longtime staff member: “You don’t work your way out of poverty; you educate your way out.”
The Patch’s formula for educating Louisville’s at-risk youth out of poverty combines recreation, youth development and educational opportunities that foster strength of character and academic excellence.
For some of the children of The Patch, educating their way out of dire financial circumstances means becoming the first in their family to earn a college degree. The organization’s College Scholars Program provides scholarship money and ongoing support for at-risk students who have proven their motivation through commitment to ACT training, leadership development and academic excellence. Rod Napier points out that The Patch starts laying the foundation for college in children as young as 8 years old.
“It’s not enough to just give these kids money to go to college,” Napier says. “You have to start with proactive activities—teaching them how to work as a team through athletics; teaching them creativity and problem-solving skills through educational opportunities. Then they have the confidence and the ambition that will get them through the challenges of college.”
The responsibilities of a college career can be overwhelming for a student who does not have the moral support of family or friends. Grades can falter; morale can take a dive. Mayghin Levine, educational opportunities manager for The Cabbage Patch, is a lifeline in these situations, supporting scholars and helping them navigate college bureaucracy. Along the way, she reassures them of their own capabilities and reminds them that the younger Cabbage Patch members are looking to them to set the example for handling adversity.
Jamayle West knows the benefits of The Patch’s programs well. He began coming to The Cabbage Patch as a young student, participating in sports and education programs. His dedication and leadership skills earned him a place in The Patch’s College Scholars program, and he subsequently completed his bachelor’s degree in Pan-African studies and his master’s degree in exercise science. His work with The Patch’s summer camps, athletics and teen leadership program allows him to mentor young people who are starting out a lot like he did.
Antonio, who has been with the organization for nine years, likes the peace and quiet of the country, a departure from his daily surroundings.
“In the city, you hear sirens; you hear cars,” he says. “Out in the country, you just hear nature.” Antonio began coming to The Cabbage Patch when he was 8 and now, at 17, he is transitioning into more of a leadership role as a counselor in training. In addition to participating in HOOF camp, he has ridden on 100-mile bike trips and paddled on weeklong canoe and camping trips as part of The Cabbage Patch’s summer camps.