Betty Urquhart was one of UFV’s first employees, and her commitment to building a strong relationship between UFV and the Fraser Valley community is one that lasts to this day. In 1995, UFV introduced the Betty Urquhart community service award to honour community members or groups that are committed to the same cause.
This year the Betty Urquhart award is shared between two dedicated groups: the teen/senior program at the Agassiz Centre for Education (ACE), and the Chilliwack branch of Pacific Riding for Developing Abilities (PRDA). Both groups will receive their awards at the convocation ceremony in June.
Sandy Balascak, who runs the senior/teen program through ACE, has no doubt that “her kids” are deserving of this award. Fifteen of the students involved will be at the ceremony to receive the award on behalf of ACE.
Balascak says the program grew from the students’ reputation as “bad kids.”
“The perception was that they were broken and were sent to this alternative program to be fixed,” Balascak explains, “But a lot of kids are here by choice because they knew they weren’t fitting in or learning at a normal high school.”
Balascak says a lot of people thought she was crazy for trying to put seniors and teens together, but she had a good feeling about it. Sure enough, while the kids weren’t too keen on the idea to begin with, the program soon blossomed.
“It only took a couple of afternoons and the next thing I knew, more and more kids wanted to go, and more and more seniors wanted to be involved too,” Balascak says. “We went from a half-empty home to a packed hall.”
The program gained a lot of attention this past Christmas when the teens in the program gave up their Christmas morning to spend it with seniors who had no family. The students ran fundraising events, wrapped gifts, and arrived at the legion hall at six-thirty in the morning to have breakfast ready by eight.
“They just jumped at the chance,” says Balascak. “These kids have become so community-minded.”
Daphne Clegg had similar ideas of building a community when she helped found the Chilliwack branch of PRDA almost 30 years ago. Bringing together disabled kids and horses seemed like a natural idea.
“It’s sort of a twofold thing: the kids get a half-hour long therapeutic riding lesson, and their parents get networking time with other parents, who are dealing with similar challenges,” Clegg explains. “We started with one pony and a couple of riders, and now we’ve really created a community.”
Starting the Chilliwack PRDA section was an idea that evolved from Clegg’s previous work both with horses and disabled children; she volunteered in Victoria with a therapeutic riding association, and later with disabled children in Vancouver. When she moved out to Chilliwack and had a child of her own, she decided band together with Pat Fuller to give back to the community.
“I’ve always had a horse,” Clegg says, “and Pat, who I’d just met, was also a horsey person and had two young kids of her own. I needled her until she caved, and we started with one pony and a couple of volunteers. It just grew from there.”
The Chilliwack PRDA now has five horses, a plethora of volunteers, and over thirty kids who ride every week.
For kids who are usually wheelchair-bound, the movement of the horse helps mimic the movement of the pelvis, and in a couple of cases, physical therapy of riding negated the need for surgery.
Riding is also a huge confidence boost for every child, as they develop a bond both with the horses and the other riders.
“The kids have this sense of belonging, where they’re not the weird ones out,” Clegg says. “And their siblings are jealous of them, for once, because they’re the ones that get to ride.”
The program is immensely popular; there are currently over forty on the waitlist. Although there is a small fee for riders, the PRDA in Chilliwack is completely volunteer-run. “It’s a nominal fee of $150 a year, which is very little compared to similar programs,” says Clegg. “We can even help meet that if parents are struggling. That was our mandate to ourselves — to keep it affordable for everybody.”
And there have been many moments over the years that have made it all worth it.
“Just seeing the community we’ve built, and the kids that come back years later to visit us as adults,” Clegg says. “Lots of them come back to visit, and there are always lots of hugs and smiles… it’s thrilling to see the community we’ve built around riding, as well as the connections both parents and riders build with each other.”
Both the ACE teen/senior program and the Chilliwack branch of PRDA were presented with their Betty Urquhart community service award at UFV’s convocation ceremony on June 14 in Abbotsford.