HDR Foundation Grant: HETRA 2016

Taking the Reins

HDR employees offer three unique perspectives of grant recipient HETRA

There are two sides to every story, as they say. Unless it's this story. This story has three sides.

Side one is a man who has a passion for helping kids.

Side two is a woman with a philanthropic spirit.

Side three is a 13-year-old girl full of energy.

Those three sides make up the recent HDR Foundation grant to the Heartland Equine Therapeutic Riding Academy.

Mike Doiel, HDR's Strategic Pursuits and Alternative Delivery Director for Architecture, is a board member with HETRA, where he helps guide the direction of the organization.

Teresa Konda, a Water/Wastewater Engineer at HDR, is a therapeutic riding instructor for the nonprofit, using her talent and passion for horses to help to improve the quality of life both physically and emotionally of individuals with disabilities through equine-assisted activities.

Ashlyn Schauss, daughter of HDR Business Analyst Cynthia Schauss, is a HETRA student who has seen the benefits of equine therapy firsthand.

"It really amazing to see the connection between HDR and HETRA," Doiel said. "We have three employees deeply rooted into HETRA, with myself as a board member, Teresa as an instructor and Cynthia's daughter as a participant."

That connection helped HETRA receive a large grant in 2014 to help the organization heat and insulate its indoor riding facility, which allowed for year-round sessions. This time, the HDR Foundation is helping improve accessibility to the outdoor arena with a $15,000 grant.

"The space around the outdoor arena is sloped, and quite frankly it's unsafe," Doiel said. "They are going to grade the area flat, add a path that allows for the horses and individuals to get to the arena safely, and also add parking near the outdoor arena so the parents and visitors can watch from their vehicles."

Accessing the outdoor arena is important beyond just safety, too. HETRA prides itself on helping participants not only physically, but also emotionally. Combining the joy of working with 1,300 pound horses with the fresh air of outdoors creates an environment that inspires participants to work harder and get even more out of their sessions.

Schauss witnessed the physical and emotional benefits of HETRA firsthand with her daughter.

"We've tried a lot of different therapies," said Schauss, whose daughter was diagnosed with a genetic condition called Phelan-McDermid Syndrome, which affects her cognition and fine and gross motor skills, including an abnormal gait pattern. "She has difficulty socializing with others and most traditional therapies were frustrating for her. So we wanted to give HETRA a try."

The results have been amazing, she said.

"In the first few months her core body strength increased dramatically. Before riding, she had a difficult time walking a straight line and now her gait and stability are more appropriate. But even more than that, she is now having fun during therapy and is willingly socializing with others."

Konda has been on the other end of that therapy as a therapeutic riding instructor. She started at HETRA as a volunteer in 2003. Four years later she took the instructor courses and now works once a week, customizing the horseback riding lessons to each of her participants.

"I grew up with horses, so that was my original draw to the program," she said. "But then as I started to work with the participants and their families, that really became my passion."

Doiel has the same draw to the organization.

"I have served on quite a few boards, but this one is the most rewarding because it is helping children and veterans," he said. "The benefits of this organization come in so many different forms – from muscle and body therapy to mental benefits and socialization."

HETRA has recently partnered with Go Physical Therapy, which allows the organization to expand the services currently offered. Further, the organization anticipates that it will perform 25 to 40 percent of its sessions at the outdoor arena once the accessibility problems are addressed. Currently, the organization hosts nearly 125 sessions per week, with plans to grow to 150 by the end of the year.

Better yet: No participants are turned away. If someone cannot afford the equine therapy, HETRA gives out stipends to accommodate the costs. The organization holds fundraisers to pay for the stipends, including the Little Britches horse show on Aug. 27, which the Omaha HDR office is sponsoring.

HETRA will also have signage near the new parking area stating that the construction was made possible by a grant from the HDR Foundation. HETRA previously honored the foundation by naming the area off of the indoor arena the HDR Foundation Viewing Room.

"It's been so great to see the relationship between our employees and HETRA grow," Doiel said. "These kids get attached to their horse and their faces light up when they see them. Just knowing that our employees are playing a part in that – it really makes a huge impact."