Robinson students learn team building, leadership, social skills at Small Miracles

Rick Wagner • Oct 30, 2016 at 10:00 AM

KINGSPORT — Special education students and their peer tutors from Robinson Middle School fed, cleaned and brushed horses Thursday, marking their third monthly trip to the Small Miracles Therapeutic Equestrian Center.

The students also split into two teams that competed in leading Violet the pony and Key the horse in loop-the-loop in the Small Miracles arena.


That was followed by a competition between the two animals in bobbing for food. The students ended the visit the same way they started: around a table with Small Miracles executive program director Sherri Russell leading a class of sorts. In the beginning, it was going over what the day’s activities would be and in the end recapping them.

The students also met with Miss Kitty, a black cat and one of two cat mascots at the facility, the other being Mabel. The two take turns having the run of the place — Kitty in the mornings until about 4 p.m., then Mabel after that.

Russell’s husband, J.R., is the barn, equine and facility manager but better known as the cowboy by the students because of his boots and hat.

Hannah Howell, an instructor in training and equine assistant, and volunteer Karen Colangione also were on hand to help Thursday, as was a group from the Literacy Council of Kingsport. Even Principal Brian Partin dropped by to see what the students were doing and get shots for a “selfie” video he is working on for Education Week blog.

Brandie Wishon, a special education teacher in her second year at Robinson and fourth year teaching, said the visits are to build social and emotional skills for the special ed students. Students don’t actually ride the horses as part of the program but may later, said Whishon, a former volunteer at the center. Russell said the program helps teach students social, teaming building and leadership skills, adding that the not-for-profit center, a United Way agency, serves folks with varied needs and abilities from ages 5 to adulthood.


“This is such an amazing opportunity for my students and the peer tutors who come to help. It’s truly magical there, and my students absolutely love going,” said Wishon, also head of the SAM (Social Academic Management) program and cheerleading sponsor at Robinson.

What started out as an apple bobbing competition between Violet and Key took a turn when Violet, who is 32, ate 16 apple slices but Key, who Russell said had never eaten apples, declined to bob for any. However, he ended up bobbing for one horse cookie and two of his favorite mints. He also ate a third mint from the hand of special ed instructional assistant Jane Greene.

Russell told the students that both animals won since the students helped Key find something he would eat when he declined apples.

“We’re all winners,” eighth-grade student Carson Darnell said during the ending session of the visit.

Wishon said that donations that fund the program for Robinson came from Tim and Shannon Hurd, who own local Domino’s franchises, Premier Equipment owner Barry Monroe, Pizza Plus, owned by Cheryl Morrison, and Pizza Plus accountant Dennis Gilliam, Wishon’s father.

Russell said the center, founded by Mary Smith in 1995, is in the midst of its nuts and candy fundraiser and plans a family friendly open house from 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Nov. 27. It has been in the Rock Springs community about 14 years. More information is available on the Small Miracles website at small-miracles.org/.


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