by Sharon Chin and Jennifer Mistrot
HALF MOON BAY (KPIX 5) — Young people with disabilities can find a sense of belonging on a ranch, thanks to a Half Moon Bay couple who’s created a special place where “everyone fits,” both the riders and the horses.
Joell Dunlap and her husband, Darius Dunlap, bring more than smiles to developmentally-challenged students at Square Peg Foundation.
“There’s no agenda to make anybody any different or any better,” said Joell Dunlap. “To just be, and be a family and feel connected.”
The couple’s 16-year-old nonprofit gives equestrian lessons to more than 40 students and their families a week at Kastl Rock Ranch in Half Moon Bay and Cadence Farm in Sonoma.
The students between one and 30 years old and most of them are on the autism spectrum.
“It’s really important that whatever we do makes a difference in people’s lives,” said Darius Dunlap.
The lessons bring a sense of calm to Lisa Valerio’s 16-year-old son, Nathan. “The horses bring him so much pleasure,” Valerio said. “Everybody can be who they want to be. There’s no judgment.”
Square Peg’s Community Engagement Director Michael Yablon says Joell and Darius create a safe place where magical bonds form.
“I’m blown away to see what this brings to the kids,” Yablon said. “Nonverbal kids being verbal on the horses. Parents that are relaxed.”
And the name Square Peg doesn’t just refer to the participants but the horses as well. One of them, “Curtis,” is a former racehorse who’s blind in one eye.
“Phil” is a former show pony. “He’s a fantastic part of our program because he’s such a friendly guy and he’s beautifully trained,” said Darius Dunlap.
Racing industry grants help fund the horses’ placement and retirement. “That might mean they have a little arthritis, tendon issue, or something else,” he explained.
LEARN MORE: Jefferson Awards for Public Service
Square Pegs is a new start for both the horses and their riders.
“Just a place where you can discover who you are and how that makes you special,” said Joell Dunlap.
So for creating a special place for developmentally-challenged kids, their families, and horses, this week’s Jefferson Award in the Bay Area goes to Joell and Darius Dunlap.
Editor’s Note: There is a waiting list for lessons, which are $75 dollars a week, for instructor costs. One in five students is on scholarship.
As shelter-in-place restrictions have loosened, Square Pegs is now operating at 60 percent capacity.