In 2017, Sebastian was an active Foothills elementary school student, able to walk, play at recess, and engaged in sports. Then one day, he was sent home from fencing practice with pain in his leg, For Sebastian, his mother, Gina, and their family, life was about to change drastically.
The next morning, Sebastian woke up in extreme pain, unable to put any weight on his leg. A mystery to local physicians, he used crutches to get around, and struggled through physical therapy appointments, experiencing pain of a "12" on a 10-point scale. He was prescribed heavy pain medicines and immune-modulators, under the incorrect diagnosis of juvenile arthritis. By August 2017, Sebastian was in a wheelchair, and he and his mother were at Children's Hospital of Philadelphia (CHOP), with a diagnosis of Amplified Musculoskeletal Pain Syndrome (AMPS). They were separated from family, Sebastian was absent from school, and for five weeks they lived in Philadelphia, where he participated successfully in an intensive outpatient treatment program.
The correct diagnosis and actual treatment at CHOP was just the beginning of the healing process. Sebastian had not only endured the physical pain of his condition, but also the psychological stress of misdiagnosis and the drastic change of life to a 'new normal', completely dependent, in a wheelchair. He may have left the wheelchair behind at CHOP, but there were reminders that life was still not the same. Upon return to school, there were new kids in the class, a different classroom dynamic. Life had gone on, and Sebastian was someone they had only heard about. Sebastian was back physically, but he was not back to his normal self. He was reluctant to talk, to contribute, to agree enthusiastically to being involved in anything. Since stress can trigger recurrence of AMPS, CHOP specialists emphasized the importance of managing anxiety and recommended daily physical activity, especially outdoors. Gina opened her email and clicked on the TRAK newsletter of the month, which described an upcoming volunteer orientation. She and Sebastian attended, knowing it sounded just like what the doctor had ordered! Indeed, Sebastian's reluctance to participate has begun to shift since he has been volunteering twice a week with Gina at the ranch. She has observed Sebastian's personality restored, full of wit, and humor. He has a renewed positive outlook, saying 'yes' to new opportunities and playdates. "The love he always had for life itself is coming back", Gina said gratefully. Indeed, this interviewer was received with much enthusiasm and observed a thriving child with a positive, can-do attitude!
When a child becomes the recipient of intensive services and treatment, no matter what the diagnosis, they often lose confidence in themselves and their ability. TRAK was created for this very purpose, with the vision of empowering youth who are the recipients of services into animal experts who serve their community as service providers. The outdoor, physical nature of ranching and therapeutic animal interaction are the force behind what we like to call 'TRAK Magic'. We are delighted to have Sebastian and Gina as part of our ranch family, and look forward to watching him to continue to grow and flourish!
It is often helpful to read the experiences of other families when choosing a program for a child with unique needs. The following testimonial comes from a Trak parent who has been associated with the program for several years and has watched her son grow and flourish as a result of being at the ranch. The amazing attribute of TRAK is that you cannot tell by looking who has special needs and who doesn't. TRAK is one happy 'family' of diverse individuals enjoying Western life on horseback.
"I remember very clearly dropping my son off at Trak for the first time many years ago and sitting in the car, holding my breath, hoping he would relax and have fun. Knowing that he was worrying about germs, how big the horses were, looking stupid in front of other kids and not getting it right, I worried too. Little did I know he was about to meet the man I like to call the “D- Whisperer”. A man who’s quiet confidence and calm demeanor both frustrated and inspired a young kid who had little confidence in himself. Scott never rose to the bait when D got frustrated or changed his belief in D’s abilities. Even when D quit for a day, weeks, or months Scott was right there when D was returned calmly leading him forward, taking small victories like getting horse spit on your hands as huge wins. Fast forward to a 17 year old who has grown into a thoughtful, albeit stubborn, young man. A young man who doesn’t quit, works hard, feels compassion for others, and takes risks without constantly worrying about failure. When I look back on all the pivotal points and people who have helped get us where we are today, I know that Trak and Scott were the turning point. The D- Whisperer will forever hold a place in my heart because he believes is my son. Thank you to all who make Trak a reality."
A.O.- Tucson, AZ
Since the founding of Therapeutic Ranch for Animals and Kids in November 2007, TRAK has become a familiar name in Tucson. The camps and events that gain media attention make wonderful memories for sure, but not everyone who walks through the gates of the ranch knows the inspiration for its founding. Jill Prickett-Tilley, in remembering "Little Bit", said, "Ever since I was little, I always wanted a horse. My dream came true in 2003. It was love at first sight. I felt a connection with him like nothing I had ever felt before. He became my best friend, my therapist and my inspiration. I had always known there was something incredible about the human-animal bond, but it wasn't until he came into my life that I truly understood it. It was this relationship that guided me in the creation of Therapeutic Ranch for Animals and Kids (TRAK)." In fact, a child walked for the first time at age four, overcoming challenges of both autism and cerebral palsy when asked to go to "Bitty". The combination of the strength of the human-animal bond, and the motivation that animals provide is the foundation for TRAK's signature magic. While the public, for educational privacy purposes, does not see pictures of the school groups bringing students with special needs daily to volunteer at the ranch, and learn real-life vocational skills in a supportive environment, the therapeutic environment Little Bit inspired remains a key purpose of TRAK's mission. Bitty, himself, had special needs, and was blind due to equine uveitis, common in appaloosas. Everyone, whether labeled with a diagnosis, or not, has challenges and "special needs", they're just all unique and as different as the human experience. It could be the mom of a child with autism who needs a break from being a 24/7 caregiver, the veteran with PTSD, or the person who wants to spend more time with their children that benefits next from the Tucson tradition started by one special Little Bit.
There are so many ways to be involved at TRAK. Family membership, volunteering, and donating all support our mission and vision to strengthen kids and community through animal interaction. Come and experience the ten year tradition that is proof that a "Little Bit" can do a big service!
My family has been associated with T.R.A.K. for about two years. We would pass T.R.A.K., at its Craycroft location, frequently. From the road, you could see horses in the turnout. My son would see the horses and get excited. He verbalized his desire to ride. I decided to sign him up for a lesson. I had no idea how life changing T.R.A.K. would be for him.
My son’s first few lessons were solo lessons. He practiced grooming and learned about horse safety. He got to go on trail rides and rode around the arena proudly. He instantly connected with a feisty, paint horse named Peanut. Peanut and my son have had highs and lows, as they worked together as a team. I have watched my son accomplish goals with his riding. I have watched him show extreme amounts of courage. He enjoys the camaraderie he has with his peers at lessons, gymkhanas, and the Friday night light events. We look forward to days he gets to spend at the ranch. I love to watch him ride, while I get to give love to all the other animals at the ranch. I feel the stresses of life disappear while I am there. I love to feed apples to the horses and pet the happiest little pig, Wilbur.
I have seen “T.R.A.K. magic” happening. As summer lessons approached, my son made the decision to take on early morning lessons to avoid the heat. I was concerned that this would be problematic, as he had always been a child that enjoyed sleeping in. He is happy waking up at 5 to make it to his 6 o’clock lessons. I couldn’t believe it. He really wanted to spend as much time as possible at the ranch. He even asked to volunteer.
My son was unable to volunteer independently, as he was not 12 years old yet. His dad enjoys being outside and was agreeable to participating in the volunteer program. They signed up for the morning shifts, as it is suitable to our schedule. They took the horse handling class and did the volunteer orientation together. It has been a great opportunity for the two of them to have some designated time together. As the school year approached, my son was unable to volunteer as much. My husband made the decision to continue to volunteer at the ranch, even when my son was unable to be there.
I have seen people of all ages putting in an extreme amount of hard work without having to be asked. They do it because of the sense of serenity the ranch gives them. T.R.A.K gives everyone there an opportunity to work with and receive love from animals, while accomplishing goals in a safe environment. In an often scary world, Therapeutic Ranch for Animals and Kids provides families with a safe outlet where they can live, learn, and grow. I am forever grateful. --A. H.
by Ron Martin, TRAK Board Member & Guest Contributor
I have been affiliated with TRAK since around 2009. I came to TRAK to try and improve my horsemanship skills and learn more about horses. Scott Tilley, then Ranch Manager and Instructor, challenged me at every lesson to become better. He wouldn't let me become complacent, riding comfortable horses. He challenged me to ride better and better horses. While Scott tries to make you a better horseman, he also makes lessons fun. I noticed early that TRAK promotes a family environment. Everyone there, from the staff to the volunteers, work together to promote a therapeutic atmosphere.
As a boy of 5 years old, I wanted a horse. I grew up on Roy Rogers. Every Christmas, I asked my folks for a horse, but it never happened until I got involved with TRAK. Once you spend time at TRAK, you begin to feel like all the horses are yours! During the past 8 years, I have had the opportunity to ride most of the horses at TRAK. A couple years ago, Scott asked me if I wanted to do a half lease on a horse named Hawk. Hawk became like my own horse, so I was close to fulfilling my boyhood dream. Then two years ago, an opportunity arose for me to own my own horse named Sammy. I have had her for two years now, and you can't imagine what she means to me. You see, it only took 57 years, but it was well worth the wait.
I mentioned earlier that TRAK is like a family. When I go there to ride or just spend time with Sammy, I see people of all ages working at the ranch. From the staff giving a lesson to a child with special needs, that has the biggest smile you can imagine, to the many volunteers feeding the animals, mucking stalls, people of all ages. It's amazing to see the young and old, working together, talking, laughing, working, and the best thing is, they are actually talking to one another, not texting on their cell phones. In fact, you don't see much cell phone use at the ranch. Volunteer opportunities at TRAK teach our younger folks leadership skills that will stay with them their entire lives.
I have also had the opportunity to give back to TRAK. I serve as Vice President of the Board of Directors and volunteer as much as I can.
Anyone spending time at TRAK will truly experience TRAK Magic. It's hard to explain TRAK Magic, rather, you have to experience it. I encourage anyone to come by and visit the ranch. My guess is that once you come, you will stay and become part of the TRAK Family.
Animals are naturally curious and love without judgment. So do our humans!
If your child is diagnosed with a disability, you may be accustomed to "therapy" being done at a table in a highly structured setting, like a classroom, or an office. This presents benefits as well as challenges. When children are constantly the recipients of services, the unintended focus can become what they cannot do, rather than a celebration of ability. In addition, skills taught in therapy at home or in an office can be very difficult to generalize in an unstructured community setting, particularly for children on the autism spectrum. Does a safe setting exist, where it is okay to practice social and vocational skills, to earn trust and coping skills, in the presence of love and support, without being bullied or judged?
That is why TRAK Ranch was founded.
While our staff have significant backgrounds in special education, and have been trained in delivering formal services, what is "therapeutic" at TRAK far exceeds what can be done within the sterile clinical setting. TRAK's mission is to use animals as a bridge for youth to make human connections and experience a feeling of belonging to a community. Children with visible and invisible challenges first set foot on the ranch, perhaps as members, riding students, or as part of a school vocational training group, but they quickly become experts at something. Maybe they connect with a special animal and find out all there is to know about its care. Then, they become volunteers. When we take new members on tours, or classes through on field trips, now that child is the "professional" teaching others, interacting, sharing, serving and feeling the satisfaction that accompanies pride in a job well done.
What is therapeutic about TRAK is the entire setting and mission. "Belonging" is not a service we can package into a 50-minute hour, assign a dollar value, and advertise. In all honesty, the feeling of being part of a "community" is priceless, whose rewards extend far into the future for Tucson. Everyone has something to offer. Rather than focus on disability, we celebrate ability and create a safe zone to learn, grow and reach a child's fullest potential at TRAK.
A diagnosis of autism changes everything. It tests faith, marriages, finances, relationships, friendships, and inner strength. One of the more challenging aspects is that it is an invisible disability, often accompanied by poorly understood physical symptoms of illness. The invisibility of the challenges often brings judgment on the part of strangers. It is not uncommon for a parent to feel that they cannot go out of their home without someone staring, or worse yet, making comments that hurt. The children may not be able to respond verbally, but they certainly feel the disdain.
My son's autism was the regressive kind. He had beautiful eye contact and words and lost them all in less than a month, just before his first birthday. He was hyper and sensory-seeking, so sitting anywhere was impossible. In playgroups and music groups, he was the only one to run circles outside of the circle of children playing appropriately. Friendships dissolved quickly when differences between him and their children were painfully clear. We were shunned in churches, glared at by those who judged us to be poor parents. When brought to a playground, the other families would leave. I began driving around to look for empty playgrounds before taking him out of the car.
Driving by, I saw TRAK ranch at their old location on Craycroft and River, and was magnetically drawn into their driveway to inquire whether my son could take riding lessons. Although he loved horses, he had a bad experience with therapeutic riding in New York State and was afraid to get on again. His sensory sensitivities made it a challenge to tolerate jeans, socks, boots, and he was terrorized by the crow of a rooster. It was only by the sheer hope and faith of a mother in miracles that we signed up for our first lesson, with now Executive Director, Scott Tilley.
Scott demonstrated so much patience with my son. The rooster crowed and, indeed, my son did freak out the first few times. As you can see in the photo above, he refused to wear jeans and boots, but Scott would quietly remind him, "Cowboys always wear jeans." Eventually, he shed his sweatpants for jeans and his shoes for boots and even grew to love the rooster, Dude. He not only overcame his fear but began to ride and ride well. Each lesson, Scott would add one thing, and before I knew it, that child was able to catch and halter his horse on his own. It would have been so tempting to do it for him, but Scott knew that one day he would. And he did. The photo below shows him loving Norman, who he learned to halter on his own after much effort and persistence. Having a teacher and mentor who believes in him...who sees ability, not disability, makes all the difference.
Our experience at TRAK began connecting with the animals, but the real reward has been connecting with its very special staff and volunteers. The judgment we experienced from those in stores, playgroups and churches has never happened at TRAK. In fact, when I do overhear TRAK people talking about my son, it is always positive. "He is so cute! He is so polite! He makes my day!" Not only has TRAK been a place where my son can thrive, but the ranch has something to offer the entire family, so we have a place to belong together.
Love, not judgment, is always the answer to reach those that society has deemed to be unreachable.
Love is what we have found at TRAK.