Jasper youth helped with horseback rides from Advocates for Special Kids

·3 min read

A support group for parents of children with disabilities has shown to be immensely helpful since it started a decade ago.

It all started when Jasper Elementary School approached Carla Gallop, a middle outreach worker with Community Outreach Services (COS), to ask if she could start a support group for parents of children with disabilities.

Parents named the group Advocates for Special Kids (ASK), Gallop said in an email, and they've met nearly every month since.

Gallop explained, "In my role … I facilitate the meetings, advocate for the families and connect them with the appropriate federal and provincial benefits to best support their children."

Gallop has also helped with setting up ASK programming for the families and their children. That includes activities such as private swimming lessons, arts programs, drum circles with Matricia Brown, baking, and horseback riding.

She called the horseback riding program "an incredible success for ASK".

"It has brought the children so much joy," she said. "It is truly incredible to see them connect with an animal and to smile from ear-to-ear when they are with the horses."

ASK has been a huge source of support for Mollie Lalonde Lynch and her husband, Dennis Lynch, particularly the horseback riding program, staged at the Tom McCready Memorial Riding Arena.

"It has tremendously helped our son, Silas, who has autism," Lalonde Lynch said. "It's been such a great thing for us here, especially not having access to many things others have in a city."

Silas has high-functioning autism. His mom said, "He's capable of being communicative. It's getting a lot better over the years."

Silas, who turns nine soon, has been in the program since he was four or five.

At first, "He was of course scared and intimidated," Lalonde Lynch said, but noted, "The horses are very calming. It's led to a lot of growth and learning for Silas. It definitely gave him more confidence with his communication and being around other people. It gave a way to express himself and participate in group activities, which, a lot of time, doesn't happen."

Silas' brother Gage started in the horseback riding program at the same time.

"For him, he was quite young when he started - at least three," Lalonde Lynch said.

Lalonde Lynch has high praise for Helen Van Tongeren, who has dedicated time to teaching young folks how to ride horses for a few years. Lalonde Lynch said the program would not exist without Van Tongeren.

"She does the riding solely for our special needs kids and adults from the goodness of her heart, which is obviously huge," Lalonde Lynch said in an email.

"As a group of parents and children we want to thank and highlight Helen for her incredible work. Programming for our special needs children can be difficult in a small community and we are beyond lucky to have someone like Helen to be offering this type of program to our children."

Joanne McQuarrie, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, Jasper Fitzhugh