W.Va. woman combines helping others with passion for horses

June 29, 2019

CLARKSBURG, W.Va. (AP) — On May 31, Rebecca Flanagan worked her last day at the U.S. Department of Agriculture after 15 years of doing what she had believed would be her dream job.

Flanagan spent most of her childhood in the countryside of western Harrison County and enjoyed being outside.

“I wanted to help people learn how to take care of and improve the environment, so I went to school for agriculture and then worked for the U.S. Department of Agriculture. . . . Our motto was ‘helping people help the land,’ so it was a perfect transition for me to go from school to the career,” she said.

Over time, however, the paperwork and red tape of the federal agency wore on her.

“I got tired of that very quick,” she said. “I always loved horses and would do virtually everything I could to be near them, but I realized the thing that made me happy in my career was helping people. I thought, ’If I could combine helping people with my love of horses, that would be something that would make me fulfilled, and would be the thing that seemed like a perfect fit for me and my values and aspirations.”

So Flanagan decided in 2012 that she could develop a therapeutic riding and equine-assisted therapy program for individuals, particularly children, with physical, cognitive and emotional challenges at the farm she shares with her husband in Meadowbrook.

In 2014, she founded the nonprofit Stars and Strides for that purpose, and held the first therapeutic program in spring 2015.

And last month, Flanagan made the difficult decision to leave her stable job with good benefits to work for the nonprofit full time.

“Nobody quits the federal government. The HR people didn’t even know what to say to me when I told them I was leaving,” she said with a laugh. “It is a big deal to leave all that security, and pay, and insurance, retirement. But I wasn’t happy, and this makes me happier than I ever imagined I could be. It’s pretty spectacular.”

There was more to that story, however. When considering therapeutic riding, she also considered the role such a program could have had in her own life.

“If I had had something like this when I was a child, I would have probably spared myself a lot of the stupid things that I did,” she said.

Flanagan grew up “very poor” in a family with six children, and was therefore provided with financial scholarships to attend West Virginia University following her graduation from Liberty High School.

It would take her 10 years to graduate from college, however, as partying began to occupy her life, her grades plummeted and she lost her scholarships.

“There were drugs and brushes with law enforcement involved. There’s a lot more details that I could go into, but it’s not a Jerry Springer show. I didn’t make the best choices as a young adult, and was very fortunate to have not suffered the consequences of that for very long. There certainly were ramifications, but it could have been much, much worse,” she said.

Flanagan attributes successfully coming out of that period of her life with a “trifecta of things.”

“You just get to the place where you realize that this isn’t it. Partying and running around and all that used to be fun, and it’s not anymore,” she said.

At about the same time, a mutual friend introduced her to her husband, Trevor, who Flanagan describes as “much more serious.”

She also started attending church with him.

With those factors in place, she finally finished school and began her career in the federal government.

And later came Ginger, who would change Flanagan’s life again.

Ginger is an 11-year-old mare that Flanagan got as a colt as soon as her federal job provided the means. While many might say Ginger is white, Flanagan is quick to point out that she is actually gray, proudly pointing out the darker-tinged coat on her knees and nose.

“She’s the one that started all this for me, little does she know,” Flanagan said.

Flanagan has now spent years working with children and adults with autism, Down syndrome, brain injury, post-traumatic stress disorder, anxiety, and other physical and cognitive challenges.

Through cognitive games and obstacle courses, clients participate in therapies sometimes without even knowing it. Low income families can attend therapies at reduced or no cost.

Now that she can devote her full time to the nonprofit, she hopes to expand these programs, particularly for at-risk youth.

“We know that this poverty and trauma is multigenerational . . . Our hope is that we can intervene in their lives early enough and kind of change the trajectory and keep them from repeating the pattern,” she said. “I’m probably not alone in thinking if we can change the trajectory of our youth, then our community will change. That’s really what we all want.”

While results are not guaranteed, there have been successes. One child who was adopted out of the foster care system who attended to address trauma in her life said the program helped her trust people again, according to Flanagan.

“Her mom had asked her what she thinks it is about the horses . . . and she said, ‘The horses helped me learn to trust again, and so I was able to transfer that to people,’” Flanagan said.

Now, Stars and Strides offers programs in the spring, summer and early fall months. Eventually, Flanagan would like to cover the riding arena so the services can be offered year round and provide help for more people.

According to Stars and Stride Board member Patsy Trecost, it is that drive and compassion from Flanagan that propels the program.

“Her heart is so good,” he said. “The amount of energy that she brings to the table, the amount of humility that comes from her, and the idea that we’re all in this together and we’re all equally working for our children and their well-being, which we’re all responsible for, is near and dear to everyone’s heart.”

The need in this area at this time is great, Flanagan said.

“I know that there’s a lot of kids in our community who are really, really at a disadvantage right now, especially you look at the kids who have trauma. You look at what’s going on in our community with the drugs, how pervasive it is throughout the whole community and how that trickles down to the children ... I want to be able to provide a place for them to interact with healthy adults, good relationships, learn about themselves and experience an opportunity for optimism,” Flanagan said.

“Even if you can help just five lives, that’s exponential if you think about their children and their children and their children.”


Information from: The Exponent Telegram, http://www.theet.com

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