Every child matters to Leg Up founder

By PIPPA BROWN


It's been a couple of big years for Leg Up Trust co-ordinator Ros Rowe.

Last year, she was one of three finalists for the national Kiwi Battler Award, nominated in two categories of Kiwibank New Zealander of the Year, a semi-finalist in the Countdown Senior category and a finalist in the Local Heroes Award. She made an appearance on TV1's Good Morning show and Radio New Zealand's Country Life, all in recognition for her work in building the not-for-profit Leg Up Trust in Bridge Pa, Hastings.

With Birchleigh Polo Club and Flaxmere Youth Aid, Ms Rowe helped introduce "the sport of kings" to a group of Flaxmere children. The year before, she received a Napier City Pilot Award.

Nine years ago, while running a horse trekking business at Te Awanga, Ms Rowe decided to dedicate her life to helping marginalised youth.

"We had a lot of groups of 'at risk' youth coming through, so I started offering half-day horse sense sessions to show them horses weren't just beasts of burden," she says. "I saw amazing changes in these young people and started the Leg Up Trust."

Two years later, she moved the trust to a property at Willow Farm in Bridge Pa, where it has been transformed from near-bare land to an attractive farmlet. The first year "was a real challenge", but there was only one way to go and that was to keep "slugging on".

"It lacked facilities. We used to huddle in the garage or feed shed on wet days. We had no flushing toilet, just a long-drop - which the kids refused to use."

Some months later, she had a surprise visit from Jim Mora and TV1's Mucking In show. Unknown to Ms Rowe, two people had separately nominated her for a garden makeover.

She not only opens her heart to kids, but also to neglected horses, who often join the "herd of healers", which now stands at 20.

"Horses can meet a lot of needs. They are chosen carefully to meet the needs of the children. Horses that won't stand any nonsense are put with children who are bullies. From the moment the kid walks into the yard, the horse will take charge - the kids say they feel powerless and it wakes them up."

Other children may have been bullied so much they give up communicating to the point where they don't speak. When the child is put with the right horse they first start to ask questions, then initiate conversation.

"Horses are silent therapists," Ms Rowe says. "They soak up everything you say and are non-judgmental. We teach the children how to be compassionate and assertive - not aggressive."

She recalls other intuitive animal relationships: a special childhood horse and a wild dolphin named Horace, who visited Westshore beaches in 1979. "He reached out to me at a time I was very ill, with ME [myalgic encephalomyelitis] and accepted me as I was. I realised then having a bond with another species could be rewarding and therapeutic."

The debilitating disease is still with Ms Rowe, but most days she is able to manage it. There was another health setback at the end of last year, when she was hospitalised after being "flattened by a young colt".

Does she regret giving up her previous life for a 24-hour job?

"If I have enough passion to do it without getting paid then I have the right attitude - otherwise I should give up. Too many people have walked away from these kids - I don't want to be another person in a long line of people who sells them short."

Any replacement will have to have total commitment.

"People can't separate me from Leg Up and forget that I am me," although she can't deny she is the integral cog in the wheel.

"There's no money to pay a successor. They have to be both good with horses and kids - it's not just about horses here, although they are our secret ingredient to open the door to all the other things - how to speak properly, manners, communication and listening skills."

About six volunteers and two paid staff keep the centre going. In the rural setting, correspondence lessons are mixed with practical jobs and time with the horses.

The nurturing environment has clear, established boundaries and children know exactly what the rules are.

Ideally, visiting groups are kept to six and children stay for one term or longer. There are three permanent day students. The numbers are kept small, mostly because of a shortage of volunteers, although this suits the personalised philosophy. "We don't want these kids to be like a herd of cattle," she says.

Some lovely stories have come out of it. "A lot of social workers who bring kids out here say the ones that resume mainstream school report big changes in behaviour."

Many agencies ask Ms Rowe to take children on - children with complex learning disabilities who can't manage their own behaviour, or cope with a mainstream school.

Recently the trust undertook to raise money for a small classroom complex, which will be ready in February, to cater for up to four children. Correspondence lessons will be mixed with lifeskills - farmwork, cooking and nutrition, eating together, helping them absorb a family situation. "It's gone beyond what I ever dreamed and become more popular than I ever thought it would. The horses are the way it has been achieved, but it's always been about the kids. I feel we are at capacity now but a lot of children are still falling through the cracks.

"I don't want it to become a production line, because every child is different and every child matters."

- HAWKES BAY TODAY

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