PURVIS, MS (WDAM) - On a farm in Purvis, about a 100 children with physical or developmental disabilities are overcoming obstacles through therapeutic horseback riding each week.
"What we do is use horses and all of our smaller farm animals to reach people with special needs, whether it's developmental, whether it's autism," said Gina Archer, director and founder of Purposeful Refuge.
Archer said she grew up on a farm in Rankin County, where she first learned about equine therapy and therapeutic horseback riding. She founded Purposeful Refuge on her own farm in Purvis in 2008.
In Petal, high school students hoping to be future teachers heard about the program from a mom whose sons are three of the 100 children riding there every week.
"She actually told us about this ranch, and it kind of inspired us to help out the Pine Belt Community," said Leah Williamson, a sophomore enrolled in Petal's Teacher Academy.
They decided to help by selling stickers to raise awareness of autism and raise money for Purposeful Refuge.
"It's a good thing that they're doing this for kids who need help in relating and being able to like actually communicate if they can't," said Jessica Keith, a junior in Petal's program.
Archer said the physical and mental changes in the children involved are substantial.
"Cognitively, a child when they're on a horse, they're almost being forced to concentrate, but in a very non-forceful way," she said. "We play learning games here. We play with balls and bubbles. It's a fun environment. At the same time, we're stimulating learning and education."
The therapy is free, with each rider sponsored by a donation-based scholarship. Selling stickers a dollar at a time, the Petal students raised a total of $725, which is enough to sponsor seven children and part of an eighth.
"It's amazing because that means we're reaching more people," Archer said. "We're all about quality, but it's fun when we're getting to reach more families. They leave with a smile and tears."
Keith said it is rewarding to know their donations are making an impact on children and their families.
"You can know that you helped these children, and it really does make a difference," Keith said. "You know, it's $700. It's not 'a lot,' but it's really going to help these kids."
Archer said the organization is completely volunteer-based and is always looking for help. She said they are currently fundraising to build a covered riding facility to expand their services. She said they are asking 2,000 families to donate $100 each to help build the facility.