Standing outside a barn in the late afternoon sunshine, Lawana Harper watched as her son moved toward the base of a wooden mounting block.
She inched forward, her hands raised to help, but her son didn’t need it. Carefully but confidently, the teen stepped up, took hold of the reins and saddle and slid onto the back of Awesome Art, a strapping thoroughbred.
She did not grow up around horses. When she first set foot in a barn 11 years ago, after her then-5-year-old son, Ben, started taking lessons with Loudoun Therapeutic Riding at Leesburg’s Morven Park, she was intimidated by them.
But it didn’t take long for Harper to see the profound effect that the therapeutic riding had on Ben, who had cerebral palsy diagnosed as a small child. His condition affects the muscles of his legs and his torso, his mother said, but they are strengthened by his riding.
As she saw her son thrive and grow increasingly confident — he now aspires to be a Paralympic athlete — Harper began to devote more of her time to Loudoun Therapeutic Riding.
“It’s really something special that happens between the kids and the horses,” she said. “For Ben to have that, it’s been life-changing for him.”
Harper, who has been a dedicated volunteer at Loudoun Therapeutic Riding for more than seven years, was recently named the regional Volunteer of the Year for 2012 by the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship International.
She was the top choice for a region that includes about 80 therapeutic riding centers across Virginia, West Virginia, North Carolina and South Carolina, said Joanne Hart, executive director of Loudoun Therapeutic Riding. There was “no question” that Harper would be nominated for the honor, Hart said.
“Lawana does it all,” she said. “She is the kindest, most generous person. She has been one of the most outstanding volunteers.”
At first, Harper’s volunteer efforts focused only on fundraising. She coordinated benefit parties and festivals, wrote letters to celebrities and organizations to gather support and donations to charity auctions and put together applications to grant providers. A master baker, Harper even donated her coveted pies to auction events, Hart said.
More recently, Harper has overcome her insecurity around horses and helps around the barn. She grooms the horses, saddles them and sometimes works as a “sidewalker,” which is someone who walks beside the horse and rider to make sure the rider is safe and secure in the saddle.
Event planning and fundraising remain Harper’s primary strengths, she said, fueled by her dedication to the cause. Loudoun Therapeutic Riding works with adults, children and wounded veterans coping with many physical, emotional and psychological conditions. Demand for the organization’s services is high: About 100 people are on the waiting list to start lessons, Hart said.
As the top regional volunteer, Harper qualifies for the International Volunteer of the Year award, which will be presented at the annual Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship conference in the fall in Bellevue, Wash. Harper and Hart will attend together.
Harper said that she’s excited to travel to the Pacific Northwest but that there’s an even bigger trip on her mind these days.
“Because of therapeutic riding, Ben is going to try to be at the Paralymic Games in 2016,” Harper said.
Ben’s three brothers are all athletic, she said, and riding has offered him a way to participate in a sport he loves. He has competed in shows since he was 7, and he was classified as a Grade 2 para-equestrian — meaning an athlete with a severe disability who can retain reasonable balance and control — at the Paralympic selection trials in New Jersey in June.
Watching as her son canters around an outdoor riding ring on the Morven Park grounds, Harper said she and the family have begun to prepare for what they hope will be Ben’s trip to Rio de Janeiro in four years.
It’s a time-consuming and expensive goal, Harper said. Ben will need to take more lessons, and they have yet to find a dressage horse for him to take to the games. Fortunately, Harper is a master fundraiser and is also considering going back to work as a substitute teacher to help pay to make Ben’s goal possible.
“We’re going to give it our best shot,” she said.
“And, no matter what, the journey is going to be worth it.”