Jefferson Award Winner Created Rusty Halo FoundationBy Allen Martin

AMERICAN CANYON (KPIX 5) Jerehmeel Bigornia is all smiles as he completes his weekly horseback ride. His mom Patty is smiling too.

“He takes a lot of pride in riding,” explained Patty Bigornia. “It’s his thing.”

Jerehmeel has autism, and is non-verbal. So his ride is not just for fun. It’s also therapy. Steph Peek is Jerehmeel’s volunteer therapeutic riding instructor in training. Every Sunday for the past three years, Peek’s given riding lessons to Jerehmeel and other Bay Area young adults with special needs

“Getting him to work with things that actually get him to use his fingers and his hands,” explained Peek. “That is why we get him to stretch his arms the whole way out — to build that core strength.”

As a child, Peek was inspired by her father, the neighborhood go-to guy when anyone needed a helping hand. As an adult, Peek has had a successful career in commercial real estate management. But her heart is with teenagers who are in foster care, and others who have special needs like autism and intellectual disabilities.

“I have a passion for the high school aged. I love that age. I love where they are at in life,” said Peek. “They are at that final age of development, really at that last point when you can catch them and really turn their life around.”

Three years ago, Peek founded the Rusty Halo Foundation. Through it, she hopes to give girls in the foster care system a chance to ride and build their confidence.

“That is huge,’ said Peek. “Especially for the teen girls to be able to control something in their life, to have empowerment over something in their life. Because a lot of them have no control over what is happening to them. This gives that chance to take control.”

A recent summer pilot program for foster girls at a local horse ranch was a success.

“They learned to muck out stalls. They learned to groom,” said Peek. “They learned to do all the work with the horse. But we gave each one of them their horse. So they were able to bond with their horse and they took that horse through the 6-8 week program.”

Peek’s mentor, certified therapeutic horse-riding instructor Haley Warnock, is impressed.

“She is extremely patient,” said Warnock. “It takes a lot of patience to work with both the animals and the students that we work with.”

For Peek, working with horses is the key.

“Horses are amazing creatures that you can bond with,” said Peek. “So if you think of a foster teen that is just shuffled from place to place, area to area, just never really settled, they can come and bond with a creature like this.”

Along with her newly created foundation, Peek also hopes to eventually open a ranch where foster girls will be able to live and work with horses year round.