By Patricia Johnson-Hill, Parent Advocate/Educator
Healthy Start Program, Watts, California
Watts is a low-income community where the majority of our students live. Within this community, there is a strong presence of drug activity and gang violence. Unfortunately, violence is an everyday occurrence for some of our children. Many have witnessed violent acts — some have lost parents, relatives, and friends — and at times have feared for their lives. After school is usually a time for children to play with their friends but parents want them inside because they are afraid of outside dangers.
In September 2003, there were eight shootings in one week in which four people were killed. During that week, one of our eight-year-old students and her younger brother were both shot — with one bullet. The bullet went through the little girl's shoulder, came out and went in her brother's shoulder.
Many families leave the community on the weekends to visit family or friends so the children can have the relaxed playtime they missed during the week and escape from neighborhood anxieties. Some of our children and families have been placed in witness protection programs because they happened to be at the "wrong place at the wrong time." All children need positive role models in their lives, but for our children, gang members and drug dealers are those they often look up to. Some of our children have been removed from their homes permanently because of violence towards them in the household. The safest place for them is at school, but they cannot spend the night or weekends on campus.
As you can see, our children have much to contend with. But overall, they are normal and happy children with a zeal for life; they have hopes and dreams and great expectations. This is why I am thankful for programs that give our children an opportunity to venture out of their community, to see that there is a positive side to life. Horses in the Hood is a program that gives them an opportunity to see another world.
This year we took 12 children to a new HHLA camp located in Topanga, CA. It was an experience the children will treasure for a lifetime! Many of them had never seen the Pacific Ocean! They had seen pictures and movies of surfers and fishermen, but this was the first time that their dreams of seeing these places and people had become a reality. Their little faces were glued to the windows as we drove on Pacific Coast Highway. They were so excited and I was happy for them.
Once we reached the camp, the adventure continued. Mill Creek Equestrian Center is such a beautiful place with a picturesque view. Cory Walkey and her staff were delightful. The children enjoyed working with the trainers. One thing I especially appreciated was that each child had access to his/her own horse. The children felt a sense of responsibility as they cared for their assigned horse. They learned how to respect horses, to walk them and ride them, that horses wear shoes, which have to be replaced from time to time just as their own, and that horses may become ill and have to be seen by a doctor just like people do. They watched the veterinarian examine and perform an ultrasound on one of the horses. He later performed an ultrasound on some of the children. This was both interesting and exciting for them. For many of our children, this was their first experience with a horse. When one of our girls fell, I was really concerned because not only was she frightened, but she was also determined to never ride again. However, after being encouraged and praised by staff members, she got back on the horse. She was fantastic. Cameras were given to each child on the first day of camp. Our children enjoy being able to have keepsakes from their week at camp to share with family and friends. Parents were invited to attend the last day of camp. There was a pizza party during which a book about everything you want to know about horses was given to each child along with a horseshoe. That last day was both a happy and sad occasion for them. They really enjoyed the week and wished that it would last the whole summer. But, unfortunately, it had to come to an end. Out of all the camps that I've attended, I believe this was my favorite. I want to thank Kathy Kusner and HHLA for making this opportunity available to our children year after year. With all the negative things happening in their lives, I am grateful for this "ray of sunshine!"