This is part 2 of 4 in a series of posts about New Horizon Ranch, an organization in Rantoul, KS, which works to enrich lives through equine assisted activities and therapies. You can read the story of New Horizon Ranch founders, Brian and Joy Miller, here.
When Jessica Freund was in her senior year of studying elementary education at college, one of her professors told her she would never be a teacher.
“You should choose a different career path. There’s no way you have the ability to be a teacher,” she told Jessica.
In tears, Jessica returned home and told her dad what had happened.
“Well, you made it this far,” he said. “Do you still want to be a teacher? Is that what you want to do with your life?”
“Yes, I do,” she replied, realizing it was true. She had always loved working with kids, even when she was younger and only spent time around them as a babysitter. Her own fifth grade teacher had been a wonderful person who inspired Jessica to pursue a teaching degree.
“I know how to teach kids,” Jessica told her dad. “I love them, I love doing that, and I love being around them.”
“Then just finish what you started,” he said.
And Jessica did. She ignored her professor’s words, graduated with her degree in education, got a job as an elementary school teacher, and taught for six years, loving every minute of it.
“I have kind of learned that it doesn’t matter what people think of you. If that’s what you want to do, then you can do it.”
That’s a lesson that has carried over as Jessica has worked first as a volunteer and now as a staff member with a wide variety of kids and adults at New Horizon Ranch. As the ranch’s founders, Brian and Joy, believe, everyone deserves to be treated as a valuable child of God, not as another statistic the world has chosen to write off.
Jessica first learned about New Horizon Ranch through two of her third grade students who took lessons at the ranch and invited her to come to Spring Round Up, an annual event at the ranch that includes carnival type activities, pony rides, trail rides, and program demonstrations. After attending the event, Jessica was hooked and began volunteering on a weekly basis. Her volunteer work continued for four years until Brian and Joy asked her to come on board full time in the summer of 2014.
Today, she works as the Education Enrichment Director, or, more specifically, she runs the reading program. Every week when the kids arrive, she teaches a new reading rule or principle to them, and together, they read a short book that includes examples of that rule. They may do a supplemental activity, such as a coloring page, and then they go out to the corral and do an activity that reinforces what they just learned while they ride their horses. They end the evening by reading a grade-level appropriate book to New Horizon’s mini horses.
With every child who joins the program, Jessica works to incorporate his or her IEP (Individualized Education Program) goals and collaborates with his or her parents to be sure the child’s education at New Horizon matches up with what he or she is learning at school. Brian and Joy hope to eventually start a mobile version of this program in which the mini horses are taken into actual school classrooms.
The flexibility of her job at New Horizon has taken time for Jessica to get used to, but she loves the freedom it gives her to work with kids at the level and pace they are ready for.
“I was used to a very scheduled routine,” she said. “The first day we did the reading program wasn’t horrible, but it was crazy. So the next week we just redid it. I didn’t feel like I had to move on. I felt like I could teach to what kids actually needed out here, instead of having to teach to a test or teach to a certain kind of student.”
That more relaxed atmosphere also gives her unique opportunities to build relationships with students. She remembers one boy who was initially skittish around her but eventually warmed up. Soon, he would find her first thing every time he came to the ranch and begin telling her all about his day at school.
“I didn’t have to say ‘hello’ or ask how his day had been, it just came out. That eventually became our routine,” she explained. “It was great to see that he felt comfortable enough to open up.”
The transition from volunteer to full-time staff member hasn’t been seamless, but overall, Jessica has been surprised at how easy it has been.
“I thought it might take a little longer to get used to or to fit in or figure out how we were all going to work together, but it hasn’t,” she said. “It’s like we’ve been working together forever.”