Editor's Note: Sue Miller, David Miller and Kim Gustely received the honor of being named The Huffington Post's Greatest Person (people, in this case) of the Day on April 19. Congratulations! And thanks for all the great work you do in the community.
When the owners of opened their doors in 1995, they started small and knew they wanted to stay that way.
But the non-profit organization has a big mission: providing recreational and therapeutic horseback riding for children from ages 3 to 18 with cognitive and medical challenges.
To owners Sue and David Miller and Kim Gustely, Victory Gallop is all about love, happiness and family. It's a place where kids come to be kids, no matter who they are, where they come from or what issues they face on a daily basis.
Gustely and Sue Miller work with children who are diagnosed with autism, Asperger's Syndrome, anxiety, depression, compulsive behaviors as well as foster children. They teach children how to communicate effectively, take care of an animal and form lasting bonds.
The most important lesson, Sue Miller said, is that everyone can be successful at something.
"The animal-human bond is healing not only for the kids, but also for their families and our volunteers," she said. "They love being around the animals and the horses don't judge. The kids can be themselves."
The kids ride and help take care of the 10 horses from March into December. Over the past 17 years, Gustely and Sue Miller have watched at least 1,000 kids make a transformation.
"One boy started with us when he was just 5 years old," Sue Miller said with a smile. "He just turned 18 and he's made a complete turnaround. I love it when that happens."
The two women have a good return rate of students year after year. They think it's because the children become close buddies with their volunteers. Every week, nearly 30 volunteers help out.
"Kim and I feel extremely blessed to be able to do this," Sue Miller said. "We love animals and we love kids and we wanted some way to give back. However, sometimes I feel that the kids give more to me than I could ever give to them."
Maya Shome, 15, of Fairlawn Heights, has been a Victory Gallop student for the last seven years. Her mother, Carla Shome, said Maya went in as a "wibbly child" rider but has since strengthened her core and gained more balance.
"Growing up, her balance was not very good and she couldn't do many of the typical sports and other things kids can do," Carla Shome said. "She also joined for the social part of it."
Maya doesn't learn basic motor or communications skills as quickly as other children, her mother said. But Victory Gallop has helped her improve immensely, she said.
"Her stability has really increased and she's gotten so much better on the horse," Carla Shome said. "She's holding herself up there and she's using her legs. We didn't go into this thinking she would become a horse expert, but she participates and feels good about it."
Carla Shome said the two women owners have played an integral part in helping Maya develop.
"They are tireless, full of energy and they have a lot of passion for what they do," Shome said. "They enjoy the kids and they work hard to make sure all of the kids feel welcome and have a place there. When you meet or talk to them, their passion really comes through."
Maya looks forward to going to Victory Gallop because she can talk with her friends there. Her Victory Gallop friends have more patience than her school friends because they are like her, too.
"The (volunteers) let them talk about their day and a lot of these kids don't have good friendships in school and they don't have people to share those experiences with," Carla Shome said. "They ask the kids about their life and it makes them feel important. For her to say that she likes her friends there is a big deal."
Miller said if the kids have taught her anything, it's how to be more patient.
"They've taught me not to make a big deal over the small things and how to find joy in what you do," Miller said. "There's never a bad day here. The people here are good and the stories that come out of here are amazing."