July 23, 2014 by
Photography by Bill Sitzmann

It’s good exercise. You get to help people. You get to wear cool boots. And maybe best of all: You get to hang out with horses all day.

But there’s one other advantage to volunteering at the Heartland Equine Therapeutic Riding Academy: Even teen volunteers are critical to the operation.

“At some volunteer jobs we didn’t always feel useful or needed,” says Sarah Kopsa, 18, the eldest of three teens in the Kopsa family who volunteer at HETRA. However, she says, when the three arrive at the stables, there’s always something for them to do. “We know that if we are on the schedule we better show up because they really will have a problem providing the therapy without us,” Sarah adds.

And so it is, every Wednesday from 3 p.m. to 6 p.m. that the Kopsas participate in a variety of activities including mucking stalls, sweeping, grooming, setting up the ring for students, laying out toys, and more. “During the lesson I’m really busy resetting the rings and toys for the next student. It’s good for me to wear boots because it gets dusty in there,” Maria shares.

HETRA’s mission is to improve the quality of life—both physically and emotionally —for adults and children with disabilities using equine-assisted activities. Those with special needs go the HETRA facilities in either Valley or Omaha each week for lessons to help them improve their core strength and balance.

Arriving just after school on Wednesdays, the Kopsa children immediately set out to groom and care for the horses. As kids begin arriving for their sessions, the Kopsas are there to not only welcome them, but also to help get everyone ready to ride, working with anywhere from three to five children each session. “The horses are mild-mannered, but we still have to be at their side at all times, holding the reins and spotting the rider” Sarah says. “The activities, like throwing balls through a hoop or reaching out to take a stuffed toy off a post, may seem simple to us, but to our riders it is challenging.”

While volunteering at the facility may not be forever, it has done plenty to inspire plans for the future among all three Kopsa children. Sarah, who has worked as a Certified Nursing Assistant in an assisted living facility, plans on studying nursing and credits her experiences at HETRA and in assisted living for showing her how to support and interact with others. Maria is considering teaching as a career path “so I’ll be able to better help kids with special needs.”

And James? He hopes to go into accounting and eventually, law. “HETRA is strengthening my desire to serve others in need,” he says. “I think I will always be more sensitive people who are disabled, to the parents of disabled kids and to organizations like HETRA. I don’t know how accounting and law will play into that, but it seems like there could be a good fit someday.”

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