Animal lover and acclaimed Emmy Award-winning actress Betty White may live in Los Angeles and be super-busy filming both the sitcom Hot in Cleveland and her practical joke show, Betty White’s Off Their Rockers, but she makes time to visit the western suburbs (and the horse she sponsors named “Baby”) a few times each year for a cause she believes in—BraveHearts Therapeutic Riding & Educational Center. This will be the celebrity’s third guest appearance at the fundraiser that promises to deliver plenty of Betty-inspired energy, enthusiasm, and red-hot fun.
Established in 2002 by ovarian cancer survivor Marge Tautkus Gunnar, BraveHearts provides equine-assisted activities and therapies (EAAT) to individuals with disabilities. Therapeutic riding utilizes the special bond between humans and horses to provide life-changing social, educational, and recreational opportunities and healing to people of all ages and with many different special needs. Programs range from horseback riding and grooming to recreational games and activities.
EAAT provides physical, social, cognitive, and emotional benefits to recipients. For example, the movement of the horse’s gait at a walk is similar to a human’s walking motion. The horse’s simulated gait can assist wounded military veterans to strengthen specific muscle groups, which may ultimately aid the participant as he or she relearns how to walk or use prostheses.
The national governing body of the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) has named BraveHearts as a premier accredited center and oversees many of their activities. “All of our instructors who teach riding or anything with equine-assisted activities have to be a certified instructor,” explains Meggan Hill-McQueeney, President and COO of BraveHearts. “We also have recreational therapists on staff.” Known for its excellent facilities, trainers, and programs, people come from as far as 100 miles away to utilize BraveHearts’ services.
This year’s Hot in Hinsdale event will support BraveHearts’ “Help a Hero” program established in 2007 to help wounded military veterans recovering from injuries ranging from amputation to PTSD and brain injuries, and their families. Equine therapy, camps, retreats, and other services help veterans recover and reconnect with their families. Serving veterans from Chicago to Milwaukee, BraveHearts is currently the largest veterans’ therapeutic riding program in the United States.
“Our farm is a non-threatening, non-clinical, and serene environment,” explains Meggan. “Families spend time together and start communicating again. We make it fun and interactive regardless of challenges they face.” BraveHearts has adaptive equipment, such as a lift that can lift a person out of a wheelchair and put them on a horse, so that it becomes a non-threatening achievable activity that reaps many rewards.
This year’s Hot in Hinsdale event will offer a fun and relaxed mixer format rather than a sit-down dinner. Guests will mingle to entertainment among food stations with international flavors, from mini sliders to Latin-inspired dishes. Silent and live auctions include an opportunity to bid on a private breakfast with Betty White on August 19, one-of-a-kind vacation packages, and luxurious
During the evening, Betty will talk about her experience at the farm and the valuable services BraveHearts provides. “Betty is so down-to-earth and sincere,” says Kathy Allegretti, who serves on the BraveHearts Board of Directors and the Development Committee. “It’s like having your favorite aunt around. She has been extremely generous with her time and attention to raise funds and awareness for BraveHearts.” When Betty comes in for a weekend, she spends a day on the farm watching programs and activities, personally thanks the volunteers, kisses the horses, meets the children, and visits her rescue horse, Baby. “Betty pays for all of Baby’s care and maintenance,” adds Meggan.
In addition to the BraveHearts staff, it takes about 300 volunteers each week to provide all of its programs and services. “There are a lot of moving parts, and it takes a lot of volunteers to make the program work and to keep it safe,” says Meggan. Volunteers are always needed and encouraged, and no horse experience is necessary. Many volunteers serve lunches, do office work, assist with horticulture therapy, and help with special events and fund-raising activities.
For more information on all that BraveHearts offers or to purchase tickets to Hot in Hinsdale, visit braveheartsriding.org. For volunteer opportunities, email [email protected], or call 815-943-8226.
—Elaine Doremus and Rebecca Gibson