Annual Shea Center event honors riders, raises more than $1 million for therapeutic equestrian programs

Shea Center rider Emilia Brown-Brennan performed several tricks while riding in front of a crowd at the center's BBQ & Family Faire Sept. 26. Photo: Allison Jarrell
Shea Center rider Emilia Brown-Brennan performed several tricks while riding in front of a crowd at the center’s BBQ & Family Faire Sept. 26. Photo: Allison Jarrell

By Allison Jarrell

It was an emotional scene at The J.F. Shea Center for Therapeutic Riding on Sept. 26. Horseback riders young and old—many of whom are continually overcoming physical, mental or emotional hurdles in their lives—took to the center’s Klein Family Arena to demonstrate the skills they’ve developed during their time in San Juan Capistrano.

More than 1,500 sponsors, donors, families and visitors surrounded the arena during the event, applauding the command and confidence each rider possessed as they made their rounds. A small girl by the name of Emilia Brown-Brennan beamed at the crowd as she took her horseback riding to the next level—first turning to sit backwards and later standing up on her horse’s saddle—feats the tiny rider had obviously mastered.

Tears welled in the eyes of many as the rider demonstrations came to a close, kicking off The Shea Center’s 37th annual BBQ & Family Faire—what has come to be the largest of the center’s fundraisers, drawing guests from across Orange County. Beyond demonstrations, the evening included more than 300 silent auction items, a presentation by one of the center’s families, live country music performed by Swingshift and dancing into the night.IMG_6674

Each year funds from the event are used to support the center’s therapeutic horse-related programs, which are dedicated to improving the lives of people with disabilities. Specifically, the center’s programs address 70 physical and cognitive disabilities including autism, cerebral palsy, developmental delay, speech disabilities and Down syndrome.

The Shea Center is not only ranked at the “premier” level by PATH International—the accreditation organization for equine assisted activities—it’s one of the top five therapeutic riding centers among more than 840 facilities across the country.

As a nonprofit 501(c)(3), the organization receives no federal, state or county funding, and rider fees account for only 15 percent of The Shea Center’s budget. The rest is funded solely by grants, donations and fundraisers.

So this year, when staff and supporters learned that, for the first time in history, more than $1 million in gross proceeds was raised from the sold-out event, it was joyful news for all involved, especially for the families who benefit from the center’s hippotherapy programs.

The annual operating budget for the center is just over $3 million, with the barbecue proceeds comprising nearly one-third of the yearly budget.

“The BBQ & Family Faire hit a new level this year,” said executive director, Dana Butler-Moburg. “We could not have done it without some tremendous partnerships with our sponsors, in particular, Montage Laguna Beach, and extremely generous donors before, during and after the event. We are so very grateful.”

An Evening of Stars

At the beginning of the Sept. 26 festivities, prior to the rider demonstrations, Butler-Moburg welcomed guests to the Klein Family Arena, where retired Army surgeon Kenneth Lee and retired Marine captain Derek Herrera presented the colors.

While on horseback, Herrera shared his personal story of being wounded in Afghanistan and returning with a spinal cord injury that left him paralyzed from the chest down. He said his time riding at The Shea Center has not only given him a sport to be part of, but also the physical freedom that helps him continue his recovery and fitness.

IMG_6860A choreographed six-horse drill team riding demonstration followed Herrera’s speech, along with demonstrations from several other Shea Center riders.

One of the evening’s most heartfelt moments was the annual “Parade of Stars,” with over 60 Shea Center riders, families and volunteers walking through the dining area, surrounded by a standing ovation.

This year’s honored rider was 10-year-old Christopher Csik of Glendora. His parents, Steven and Carey, spoke of their son’s path following a series of strokes, which have left him paralyzed and unable to speak. Steven said Christopher was first evaluated for the program in mid-June 2014 while he was still experiencing trauma from previous brain swell.

“We were excited by the possibilities,” Steven said of The Shea Center’s programs “There aren’t too many equestrian facilities that offer the depth of therapy that they provide.”

During the past year of services, Shea Center said Christopher’s improvement has been remarkable. Steven said he and Carey have continually seen incremental, positive improvements in their son’s condition since beginning hippotherapy— a physical, occupational, or speech and language therapy treatment strategy that utilizes equine movement. Of the many doctors, appointments and other medical services that Chris relies on, Steven said The Shea Center is a “very critical component” of what he and Carey hope is a “very high-level functioning” recovery.IMG_7154

“Even though we live 50 miles from The Shea Center, we put that weekly drive in perspective,” Steven said during his Sept. 26 presentation. “At The Shea Center, Chris has nearly immediate access to an unrivaled equestrian therapy facility with highly skilled therapists, and he has an opportunity to continue his recovery and growth here indefinitely.”

“We believe Chris has the capacity to gain so much back,” Steven added. “This generosity is critical in making it happen.”

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