When I left my full time employment as a Legal Secretary to start our silver business, in 2003, shortly afterwards there was an advertisement that appeared in my local paper asking for volunteers for the Donkey Sanctuary Charity at Sidmouth. Although I love all animals, donkeys are my number one passion and I fell in love with them back in the 70’s when Blackie the little black donkey in Spain was in all the papers and news regarding his plight during the very cruel fiesta that they hold in Spain. I was absolutely appalled at the treatment that this little donkey had and it brought home how much abused these adorable beasts of burden are treated throughout the World. Blackie was rescued by the famous Donkey Sanctuary in Sidmouth and brought back to spend out the rest of his days in donkey luxury at the centre. I made my first trip to the Sidmouth Donkey Sanctuary even though I have lived in Devon all my life just to see him and was so taken with the place and all the other little donkeys that I was hooked.
The advertisement was for volunteers for their EST mobile unit, which they were starting up to visit special needs schools in and around the Plymouth area where I live.
The EST Charity describes itself as “The Elisabeth Svendsen Trust for Children and Donkeys (EST) is a UK based charity dedicated to providing riding therapy with donkeys to children with special needs and disabilities. The aims of the EST are to bring enjoyment and pleasure into their lives and to give them the satisfaction that comes with the achievement of learning riding skills. Riding skills are taught by qualified riding instructors using the donkey because of its placid nature. In addition, children are encouraged to groom and care for the donkeys.”
The donkeys would come down in a lorry from Sidmouth to the partipating school and then the volunteers would meet them at that school to assist with the riding. I replied to the advertisement straight away, as this was an opportunity I could not miss. I used to go horseriding in my younger days, I did know a little bit about the make up of a donkey, and how to tack it up, but working with disabled and special needs children was something I had not had any experience in. I passed the intensive vetting procedure and training (and I have certificates proudly displayed on my wall on the courses that I passed), and it wasn’t long before I was helping out. The donkeys back then, used to come down to Plymouth about 3 times a week, so I managed to assist for one of those days.
Even though I stated in my “About Me” front page, that I preferred animals to humans, to work with disabled and special needs children was something very new to me, but I have to say that it gives me immense pleasure to work these children and to see how the riding therapy helps them in many ways and is extremely rewarding. During the riding sessions, one person leads the donkey and is 100% responsible for the donkey and then the other person supports the child, and is 100% responsible for them and their safety, so just for 3 donkeys you need 6 people including the instructor, and the charity relies heavily on its volunteers, as they wouldn’t be able to function without them. If any child is too disabled, then we have a specially designed cart to take wheelchairs, which is then pulled by a specially trained donkey.
I did this for 4 years and as it was so successful the charity was looking for suitable land to build a new Est Centre in the Plymouth area, and eventually they found a suitable site in Ivybridge,the actual town I live in, and I was absoultley ecstatic, donkeys on my doorstep, what could be better. The Ivybridge EST was officially opened on June 29th June 2007 and the special guest of honor was Dr Elizabeth Svendsen, the founder of this great Worldwide Charity.
Unfortunately, Dr Svendsen (fondly known as “Mother”) passed away on 11th May 2011 aged 81. Following her funeral, several weeks later, a memorial service was held at the Sidmouth Sanctuary, where a huge marquee had been erected, which I attended along with over 2,000 other people. It was a celebration of her life but was very moving, during the hymns, when a a few of the Sidmouth donkeys were walked in and around the huge marquee, and there wasn’t a dry eye in the house. Even though she is no longer at the helm, the charity has been left in good hands, where her wonderful work will continue here in the UK and around the World.Now the schools come to the centre and enjoy the wonderful facilities it has, including an indoor riding arena, sensorory therapy room, special play area, and areas for riding outside (when the weather is suitable) in the lovely parkland and fields owned by the centre. A sensory garden is the next project and is in the process of being created, with the funds raised from various fund raising events that are held throughout the years.Each week hundreds of children visit the centre and Christmas starts in early December each year, when all the schools over a period of about 2 weeks, that attend throughout the year come and have a Christmas lunch, use the facilities and meet Father Christmas who has a little cabin in the indoor arena, where they get to ride in the Christmas cart pulled by a donkey reindeer, who dons a little red cape and a Father Christmas hat. We (the volunteers and the staff) dress up as Santa’s little helpers and Father Christmas hands out presents to each one which have been specially selected for each child. They all have a lovely time and as you can imagine the centre is very busy and very festive.
In addition to the special needs schools that visit the centre, the elderly in our community are not forgotten and special donkeys from the centre who are trained to go up in lifts, visit residents in Homes in their communal lounges, or even in bedrooms of less mobile residents. Everyone enjoyes these visits, the most able bodied to the frailest and withdrawn residents.
The Ivbridge Centre is now running its own mobile unit, taking donkeys to schools further afield, so more and more special needs schools are benefitting from this wonderful charity.
You can read about my recent activity with this Charity Here