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10-30-12 by Lauren Stiertiz of Poudre School District, as printed in Fort Collins Coloradoan.

Spending time with horses is helping students at Lincoln Middle School transform their lives as they learn leadership and life skills they need to be successful academically and at home.

“We learn to help the horses and then when we go home we can help people there and help people at school,” said seventh-grader Graciella Hernandez. Once a week, sixth- and seventh-grade students at risk of dropping out of school leave the classroom to brush, bathe and run horses through a program called the Open Door Project. The project, funded through a $20,000 Pharos Fund grant from the Bohemian Foundation, began three years ago as a partnership between Lincoln Middle School, an International Baccalaureate School, and equine-assisted life skills coaches Pia Jansen and Jill Cantor Lee. 

Lincoln school counselor Jose Sandoval said the Open Door Project gives students a chance to incorporate leadership skills they learn by working with and caring for horses into other parts of their lives. “I can say that 100 percent of these students are walking away as better human beings because of what they’re able to reflect upon with the horses,” he said. Sandoval believes the program has completely transformed students who were once falling behind. “These kids could’ve said no to equine but they said yes, so that tells me they do want to better themselves,” he said. “I’m very proud of them.” In addition to caring for the horses, the students are given individual and group challenges each week. “We are leaders with the horses, and — when we come back to school — we are leadersthere,” seventh-grader Juan Gomez agreed. Another seventh-grader, Jesus Vargas, added: “Not followers.” Through the Open Door Project, local businesses may sponsor the students through funding, by hosting a lunch, hanging a picture of them on the wall and by sending the message that they are important members of the community. Anyone in the community can get involved, Sandoval said.

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