22 Feb Police lending a helping hand to kids in Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center
Police departments in several Southern California communities have ride-along programs. As described by the LAPD: “The general purpose of the ride-along is to educate the public and open up the lines of communication with the community, thus fostering an environment of mutual trust and respect.”
If you watch TV what you will mostly see about police ride-alongs are people in high places wanting a favor, but that couldn’t be further from the truth when it comes to why police departments offer these to the public.
Several years ago, Huntington Beach resident, Justine Makoff, wanted to know more about inner-city kids and the challenges they face. She wanted to see if there was a way to offer a helping hand, so she contacted the LAPD and was matched up with Sergeant Adam Moore of the 77th Street Community Police Station. Sgt Moore took Justine through the neighborhoods that he drives around every single day. For Justine, it was an eye-opening experience!
“First of all,“ Justine explains, “I was totally surprised to know how connected this officer was in his community. Not only did he show me the neighborhoods and the rough environments that many of the kids face every day just getting to school, but he actually got out of his vehicle and talked with people who knew him, people he had personally helped or guided. It was a bit overwhelming for me, but getting close up and seeing how the LAPD interacted with the community really impacted me.”
That first ride-along was just the beginning for Justine. The more she saw the more she wanted to learn about the needs of kids in Los Angeles. With the help of Sgt Moore, Justine continued to do ride-alongs with other Community Police Departments, including Newton, Hollenbeck, Pacific, and Southeast, all inner city areas of LA. The experiences allowed her to understand the routine challenges that many kids face in their everyday lives, and she began to see how she could play a role in providing help.
The whole process really did open up a line of communication that would allow for Justine to focus on finding ways to help. As she went from neighborhood to neighborhood in LA she discovered that the challenges of at-risk kids have no boundaries. Even in her own city of Huntington Beach, the ride-along experience became an opportunity for understanding.
Professional counseling is something that makes an impact on kids and communities, but having access to the right kind of programs is something else again. For Justine, it all fell into place after those eye-opening ride-alongs and she was determined to come back into those communities with a plan of action.
Horses helping people
The Free Rein Foundation in Huntington Beach, California is not just a solution to help inner-city kids cope with their day-to-day realities, but it is also a community foundation that knows how important every member of a community really is. It was established by Dr. Carole Harris as a therapeutic center to help people of all ages dealing with challenging situations or suffering from emotional stress. And the process of therapeutic healing involves horses. Not riding them, but being with them; horse and human interacting with each other. It is a very special kind of program that involves trained counselors and equine specialists who are working with horses to heal the pains of people. But what makes the Free Rein Foundation’s Equine Therapy program so special is that they also have a mission to rescue horses and rehabilitate them. It’s a long-term process that allows many of the rescued horses to become a part of the healing process by working in the programs with the kids.
There is a special kind of bond between a horse that has been abused and is now trained to work with the equine specialists and counselors. Horses have a special sense and insight that makes them perfect therapy partners, but for the kids who begin working with these horses, there is a very special relationship that makes the program so successful for healing.
After all of the ride-alongs, Justine began working with the officers from the various precincts to identify kids in their neighborhoods who could benefit from the Free Rein experience, particularly the aspects of the program aimed at “managing difficult situations, fears, attitudes, and ways of being in relationships and in society.” It seemed to be a match made in heaven.
Beyond the Call of Duty
As the police officers began identifying kids at risk who might benefit from the Free Rein Foundation program, the officers began to reach even further by providing transportation for the kids from LA to Huntington Beach and eventually, many of those same officers actually stayed and participated in the sessions with the kids.
“It was beyond even my own imagination,” Justine remembers. “Right before our eyes we began to see the kids responding to the horses, the horses fulfilling their noble calling, and now we had police officers sharing in this experience to further enhance their own special place in the communities they served.”
Just imagine this special setting at the Huntington Central Park Equestrian Center where all of the horses at Free Rein Foundation live. Large, dusty corrals surrounded by horse stalls, horses and riders, and now groups of inner city kids outdoors interacting with the rescued horses.
Equine Therapy is not like anything you have seen. In the center of the corral are the kids working on assigned tasks with the horses, while the counselors and equine specialists are observing the interactions from the sideline. Now, just imagine that there are several of the police officers standing close by observing and supporting the kids as they begin to interact with the horses. What an incredible way to build mutual trust and respect in the community!
Police officers who have participated: HB Chief Robert Handy; LA Assistant Chief Robert Arcos; Commanders Peter Zarcone and Jorge Rodriguez; Captains Al Labrada and Rafael Ramirez; Sergeants Scott Blackman, Will Hines, Adam Moore, Heidi Stoecklein, and Clement Toscano; Officers Andy Camacho, Ryan Christie, Yvette Cruz, Samantha De La Roca, Vanessa De La Torre, Andre Dixon, Irma Garibaldi, Cintia Hernandez, Joe Marrone, Chris McPheeters, Owen Mills, Chris Ornelas, Laurissa Provost, Bobby Romo, Florence Talamantez, and Keith Tinsley..
“As we entered the gates of the equestrian center, there was a collective sigh heard in the van.
A nice feeling of calm, of being in the right place.” LA Assistant Chief Robert Arcos.
Access At No Cost to Participants
One of the important parts of the programs at the Free Rein Foundation is that the kids who need their programs actually have access to them. Throughout the year a team of committed volunteers host activities and fundraising events to support this special relationship between police departments and the kids who can benefit from Free Rein professional counseling sessions.
In January 2015, Huntington Beach Chief of Police Robert Handy brought ten local kids from one his neighborhoods to the Free Rein corral. True to the Free Rein mission, the kids were able to participate in the eight-week program at no cost. It was the beginning of many more programs to come.
Free Rein Foundation graduation November 2018, Seventy-seventh Precinct cadets with Sergeant Blackman and Officers Cruz and Ornelas (from left to right) and Free Rein Equine Specialist Michelle Desmond and Counselor Nicholas Silva behind.
Who knows where a ride-along will lead?
For Justine Makoff, now President of Free Rein Foundation, her ride-along with Sgt Moore grew into something more than just a perspective of what inner city kids feel and experience. It was the beginning of actions that would impact the lives of kids in Los Angeles and Orange Counties who just needed a helping hand. And the helping continues as new kids come under the guidance of their neighborhood police officers and develop bonds with the rescued horses who meet them in the corral.
Justine Makoff, President of Free Rein Foundation at Free Rein graduation March 2018.If you would like to learn more about the programs at Free Rein Foundation you can connect with them on their website www.freereinfoundation.org. Learn how you too can offer a helping hand by volunteering to help care for horses, or assist with one of their many events, or even offer to host a fundraising event so that more kids can head into the corral for a very special kind of healing.
By Maria Bereket, Free Rein board member, and Steven Seavey, Free Rein volunteer.