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Ponies and Pearls

Lift Me Up! prepares to celebrate its 30th anniversary with a fund-raising gala.

When Vienna resident Mark Fowler received a call earlier this year informing him that there were spaces for his three children at Lift Me Up!, it took a minute for him to recall signing up for the program.

"We heard about it when we first moved here, but there was a 3-year waiting list, so when they called it was like 'oh I remember — that was a long time ago,'" said Fowler.

Lift Me Up!, a therapeutic riding program based in Great Falls, is designed to help children and adults with a wide range of disabilities. Fowler's 7-year-old son Zach has Down Syndrome while 5-year-old Ben has some speech difficulties, so Fowler decided to enroll both boys and their 10-year-old sister Kate in the Lift Me Up! sibling program.

"It's really nice," said Fowler. "The kids really react well to the horses, and I think it builds pretty good self-esteem in that they can manipulate the horses — they can't wait for Sunday mornings."

His daughter Kate says she likes every aspect of the program — from riding, to learning how to take care of the animals.

"I like everything about horses," she said.

LIFT ME UP! CELEBRATES its 30th anniversary this Saturday, Nov. 19 with its "Ponies and Pearls 30th Anniversary Gala" at the Embassy Suites hotel in Tysons Corner. The gala, named for the fact that the pearl marks the 30-year anniversary mark, will feature a silent auction, dinner and dancing. Additionally, Sam Solovey from the first season of NBC's hit reality show The Apprentice will be the auctioneer at the event.

"We are going to celebrate in style," said gala co-chair and Board member Heidi Lesinski. "We have some fabulous raffle baskets, some really great live auction items and a nice group of silent auction items, so there is something for everyone."

A multi-strand, freshwater pearl necklace, donated by Sandy Alison Diamonds & Fine Jewelry store in Great Falls will be up for auction, as well as several romantic weekend getaways and family trips. Attendees will also be able to bid for the adoption of three of the seven Lift Me Up! horses. Those who adopt a horse will be financially responsible for its care. The Great Falls Newcomers have already adopted Lift Me Up! horse Valentine.

Lift Me Up! frequently holds events to raise funds for the general maintenance and upkeep of its horses and Great Falls property, but this year's gala has an additional financial goal.

"We are kicking off a capital campaign in order to reach our 30-year goal of owning our own property and being able to function all year round," said Lesinski.

Lift Me Up! has expanded over the last three decades and its founders and staff members have worked diligently to meet the heavy demand for the organization's services. Instructor Georgia Corey says that when she started out as a Lift Me Up! volunteer 10 years ago, the wait list for riders was between 2-5 years.

"Now we've got it down to about 9 months and under 20 people, which is something that we are really proud of," said Corey.

Additionally, the amount of riders participating in the program has more than doubled in number.

"We have somewhere between 80-85 riders right now," said Corey.

Today there are 10 instructors at Lift Me Up! and approximately 100 volunteers.

"Our volunteers are our lifeblood," said Corey. "We couldn't do this without them."

Daisy Stevens, 13, became a volunteer at Lift Me Up! as part of a required community service program at her school.

"But then I really got into it so I kept doing it," said Stevens. "I like helping people and I grew up around horses."

DESPITE THESE MAJOR ADVANCES, one obstacle remains before Lift Me Up! can offer the best therapeutic riding program possible.

"As long as I've been working here the dream has been to have an indoor arena," said Corey. "We've always had to work around the weather."

Since inclement weather, extreme cold and extreme heat all have the power to shut down a Lift Me Up! riding session, it has been hard for the program to achieve the kind of results it strives to accomplish.

"If you can go year-round there is continuity in the therapy and no disappointment at the end of the season," said Lesinski.

Corey agrees that breaking up the cycle of therapeutic riding is detrimental to the progress of the riders.

"You make so many strides forward, but then you have to try and gain them back all over again," said Corey.

Instructor Connie Kohler has been working with Lift Me Up! for eight years. She says that it is "hard to put into words" the kind of success that she has seen with her students.

"It is the only setting that you get the kind of results that you get," said Kohler.

Kohler, who wrote her graduate school thesis on therapeutic horseback riding, says that she has seen positive developmental advancements in record time.

"I had one student who wouldn't even get on his horse until the third lesson," said Kohler. "He wouldn't hold the reigns for two and a half months, and that was in April, and now he has progressed to where he holds the reigns, he steers, he occasionally halts the horse, and he has learned three new phases. He was almost non-verbal in the beginning, so it's kind of one of those things where it's just magic."