Taking ownership

Teen advisory board at Misty Meadows helps young people learn how to run a nonprofit.

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Misty Meadows Equine Learning Center is no ordinary riding facility. Its mission is to provide a nurturing environment where horses and humans work together to transform lives. All of its offerings embody the belief that horses help us explore, learn, and grow. Their equine-assisted learning approach focuses on the development of holistic horsemanship for all of their students, whether it be riding skills, unmounted partnership exercises, or horse-care skills — with an emphasis on the ability to understand, interpret, and adjust to how horses see the world. Sarah McKay, executive director, emphasizes, “Our programs are gender-neutral and inclusive. We build social skills in all of them to have better empathy, compassion, awareness, and self-regulation, among other things.” They are also about students taking ownership.Within this context, McKay felt it was important to give teens a voice in the organization. She says, “This age group really benefits from finding a place to belong and build social skills. Once they start to feel like they are valued and responsible, they really step up, grow up. This is a place where our students feel like they belong and have a voice.”

With those goals in mind, the teen advisory board was born. While the initial idea was McKay’s, it is an enthusiastic group of young people who are giving it legs.

“It’s been something that’s been in the back of my mind for a few years,” McKay explains. “It came up for me by seeing a particular group of students who became volunteers who have stayed with us, and feel like they belong here, and to give them another role in how to run a nonprofit and to have some ownership of the organization that they’re part of.”

She continues, saying that she felt it was important “to have them be part of the future, thinking about what we should be thinking about, especially as it relates to equality, inclusiveness, and diversity. Then for me, selfishly, I imagine one or more of them being my replacement sometime in the future.”

This past Saturday was only their fourth meeting, having just recently convened, but after some mingling and greetings, everyone eagerly got down to business. Eighteen-year-old teen advisory board chair Mya O’Neill began by reviewing positions — those that had been filled and those to be filled. The group learned how they were planning for continuity and longevity by aiming to have the chair be someone who was not a senior, and the vice chair be someone in middle school or just starting high school. Those without an official position were encouraged to invent a position of their own, such as group bonding leader, for instance, to make sure everyone is included.

Next, it was on to who would be on which of the general board committees: governance, development, finance, equine, facilities, and programming. Misty Meadows board of directors president Robert Egerton says about this aspect of their work, “It’s a really good way to reach out to our volunteers and get them more involved in leadership positions. Our hope is that they will step into a board role at some point.” The development committee has two members already, and Egerton says, “They participate and have great suggestions. So we think it will work with some of the other committees as well. We’ll see where it takes us. It’s a terrific organization, and to get people their age as involved as they are is really great.”

Next on the agenda was a robust list of Misty Meadows’ events at which they could represent the teen advisory board. Some included the M.V. Chamber of Commerce Business After Hours, and then two events on Nov. 25 — the Thanksgiving Open House as well as the popular Tony Smalls Auction and Artist Reception. Here, Tony Smalls, the certified Miniature Equine Therapy Standards Association horse who plays piano and does tricks, will be painting live, with the art then auctioned off at the end.

But the youth also talked about being more proactive, taking over a fundraising event themselves. Although there was an option to take over an old event like an Easter egg hunt, there was interest in developing a new one from scratch. O’Neill described the planning process, which would entail determining what the event would be, when it would happen, what they were raising money for, and the target amount. It would also include developing, advertising, and running it. One of the suggestions was to play off the “Wish List” that had been created that included everything from small items for the barn to the big-ticket item of a new horse.

The final item on the agenda was planning a group bonding experience. After tossing around different ideas, the one that seemed to immediately fly was a sleepover at the center. They set the date, outlined some afternoon and evening activities, and determined that it would be a prime opportunity to convene their next meeting at that time as well.

Any board would be impressed not just by the professionalism of this group, which ranges in age from 12 years old to 18, but their efficiency as well, because the meeting was short, sweet, and totally on target. Afterward, each member shared the reason behind her participation.

“Sarah had mentioned that she wanted to start a teen advisory board to get us who were already involved in Misty Meadows even more involved,” O’Neill said. “She said it would be great to have a younger person’s point of view and get some more insight into our generation, since we’re going to be the next generation. Hopefully, as adults drop off of the general board committee groups, we can start shuffling into them. Right now, we’re merging into the sense of what it’s like to be on a committee and run an organization.”

Sixteen-year-old Cam Ganser said, “I’ve been here since Misty Meadows first started, and involved in some way or another. When Sarah asked me, I felt like I should do it, since it’s Sarah and she’ll do anything for me.” Similarly, 14-year-old Siana Solarazza, 13-year-old Roxy White, 12-year-old Rita Hurley, 15-year-old Oona Carroll, and 17-year-olds G.G. DeBlase and Maggie Bernard have all been involved with Misty Meadows for a good many years as students, volunteers, and some as counselors in training.

“I feel like I have a grip on what’s happening,” O’Neill said. “It feels really good to find a grounding in the organization. I can share my views and create views that other people can bounce off of, and inspire the younger kids to step up and take part in the organization, which can be really cool.

“I don’t plan on leaving anytime soon. I just love it here. The community is really nice. I always feel so accepted. You can really be whom you want. There’s no need to be fake, to fit in. Everyone fits in. You can really be yourself.”

To find out more about Misty Meadows Equine Learning Center and its programs, visit mistymeadowsmv.org