CASTRO VALLEY (CBS 5) – Fifteen-year-old Emma McGregor suffers from a terminal illness that attacks her central nervous system, but the horses don’t mind.
“Are they like your friends?” we ask. “Yeah,” her soft-spoken response.
Her mother says Emma is slow to speak and walk, but quick to warm up to Melanie Buerke and her horses.
“When she’s out here riding them, she feels like any other girl who wants to ride a horse,” mom Samantha Nash explains.
That’s just how Melanie wants kids to feel when they come to SonRise Equestrian Foundation, the nonprofit she founded in 2005. She uses horses to reach children with disabilities and serious illnesses.
“They’re beautiful, strong, loyal and being able to partner with an animal like that is beyond anything you can do,” Melanie says, her admiration of horses glowing on her face.
Melanie knows the healing power of horses. She says she’s been rescued by horses twice in her life. As a child, Melanie’s parents split up. Her mother’s gift gave her relief:
“She bought me a horse,” Melanie recalls. “I began to ride that horse. That horse gave me a reason to get up every morning.”
Then, as an adult..
“My Mom was dying of cancer. Another horse in my life pulled me through that, gave me the strength to carry on.”
Through SonRise Equestrian, the former death penalty court reporter rounds up several volunteers to offer free one-on-one riding lessons to nearly forty children in Alameda and Contra Costa Counties. Other SonRise programs teach kids to care for donated or rescued horses in need of rehabilitation. And every year, the organization brings miniature horses to visit some 300 children in hospice care.
Melanie says, “I want the kids who come to SonRise to tap into the joy, that same connection and commitment to the horse that I did and to have something to live for.”
In a sun-drenched riding ring at the Castro Valley ranch that is home to SonRise, Melanie supervises as 11-year-old Jordan guides a horse in a circle.
“Relax your shoulders,” she calls. “Very nice.”
You can’t tell Jordan has ADHD when he’s riding.
“This is kind of my favorite thing,” Jordan says with a smile. “I like horses a lot.”
In the next arena, 12-year-old Jasmine Lee sits confidently on a horse as she moves through a series of turns.
Eric Lee says Melanie’s program has helped his autistic daughter grow by leaps … and gallops.
“There’s more of a determination to finish tasks, and that translates into other things, like better concentration in tasks, like puzzles,” Eric says.
But it seems Melanie is getting just as much out of the program: “I’m just overjoyed to see the kids who’ve come here have built community and have gotten better,” she says.
So for providing children in crisis healing through horses, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Melanie Buerke.
SonRise Equestrian’s biggest fundraiser is Saturday. September 18th. The Wine and Equine Festival goes from 1 to 5 in the afternoon in Castro Valley.
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