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Forward Stride volunteer earns regional award for work with therapeutic riding clients


Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Forward Stride volunteer Kathy Kelley visits equestrian friends in the organization's South Cooper Mountain stables. Kelley won the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanships District 9 Volunteer of the Year award.What is a good mother to do with a restless middle school-aged daughter who shies away from traditional after-school activities such as soccer, basketball and band?

As Kathy Kelley quickly found out, riding lessons was the answer. For a woman who grew up in the urban jungle around San Francisco, it was as foreign a concept as going deer hunting to feed the family.

“We both started at the same time,” the Multnomah Village resident says of her and her now 24-year-old daughter Kristin. “I’d never been on a horse. I mean, I grew up in the Bay Area.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Kathy Kelley, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanships District 9 volunteer of the year, takes some time with her horse Tiago at the Forward Stride stables in South Cooper Mountain.

Little did Kelley know, her daughter’s teenage whim would lead her to an equestrian-based way of life as a volunteer therapeutic horse trainer that she can’t imagine doing without. For 13 years, she’s volunteered her time and energy at Forward Stride in Beaverton’s South Cooper Mountain area. The nonprofit organization, the largest therapeutic center of its kind in Oregon, offers a range of “hippotherapy” and other riding-oriented programs to people of all ages with injuries, physical limitations and special learning needs.

Kelley’s long run of unassuming devotion to horses and clients who ride them at Forward Stride led to serious recognition this fall.

At its annual international conference in San Diego on Oct. 31, the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship presented Kelley with its Volunteer of the Year Award for Region 9, which covers Oregon, Washington, Alaska, Idaho, Montana, British Columbia and Alberta.

As she displays the engraved, silver belt-buckle she was awarded, Kelley downplays the accolades in her naturally low-key fashion.

“When they handed me this, I thought it was a box of chocolates,” she says, opening the box containing her award. “It was cute. They did a picture collage of me at the banquet that night.”

The magical mixture

While Kelley, 65, is pleased to be appreciated by her peers at Forward Stride who nominated her, perhaps it’s best for others to share why Kelley is the region’s most deserving therapeutic horse volunteer.

Amber Henneck Varner, Forward Stride’s program coordinator, hailed Kelley as a gentle yet determined motivator, organizer and mentor to many clients and staff.

“Kathy is a magical mixture of drill sergeant, caring support and innovative ideas,” Varner wrote to the association’s nominating committee. “If we are having a hard time motivating ourselves to sit down and write out training manuals, she sets a working meeting and won’t let us leave until it is finished. If we lose a beloved equine, she puts together a memorial ... If we have a tricky problem, she starts the brainstorming session and keeps us there until we have a great solution ... I consider her to be one of my life mentors.”

Fellow Forward Stride volunteer Doug Jackson described Kelley as a natural in working with horses and engaging with a wide range of personality types.

“Kathy has a way about her that communicates caring for each individual while leaving no room for doubt that in a therapeutic riding facility each task must be carried out to guidelines,” Jackson wrote to the committee. “I am truly impressed with Kathy’s ability to work with any volunteer, making each one feel welcomed, important, confident and happy to be joining our family of volunteers.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Kathy Kelley displays the ornamental belt buckle that she won as the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanships District 9 Volunteer of the Year.

Galloping along

When pressed, Kelley will admit that over the years, through trial and error, she’s cultivated a certain comprehensive knowledge of Forward Stride’s mission and the elements clients, staff and other volunteers need for programs and experiences to progress smoothly.

“I’m trying to bring all parts of Forward Stride together,” she says. “All the staff, volunteers and communications. I think if they have a question, they can come to someone like me — who is part of a lot of different things — and get an answer. My speciality is putting together the volumes of training manuals.”

Development Coordinator Abigail Frainey, who is among staff working to secure a new location for Forward Stride as the South Cooper Mountain area is poised for development within the new Urban Growth Boundary, says Kelley personifies the Forward Stride spirit.

“Kathy’s been phenomenal with the organization,” Frainey says. “She’s hard to find in a volunteer. She knows what we need, is never complaining, is always involved and has ideas and tells us how to do it. It’s great to have someone to have explain all the facts and ways to make (things run) easier.”

When not working directly with horses and clients, Kelley, now a grandmother of five, busies herself in the office by rounding up new volunteers and setting up training sessions.

“I would not be out here if I didn’t like it,” she said, noting her award, if nothing else, makes her feel good for the program. “I’m just glad this happened for Forward Stride, so people can know about us, not just the funding part, but for someone with a child with autism who says, ‘Gee, there’s a place for us.’

“I’m still out here, falling off horses,” she adds, “but still going.”Photo Credit: TIMES PHOTO: JONATHAN HOUSE - Forward Stride volunteer Kathy Kelley pets her horse Tiago at the organization's Beaverton stables.