Like many horse lovers, Deborah Rocha keeps things moving. The ambitious founder of SRD Straightening Reins has kept the equine therapy nonprofit operating for eight years while teaching full-time in the Saugus Union School District.
She’s also had to move the organization’s horse ranch a number of times, mostly due to the charity’s financial limitations. And she’s at it again.
After a brief time in Sand Canyon, SRD Straightening Reins has moved to Davenport Road on the border of Canyon Country and Agua Dulce.
And Rocha’s moved on in other ways. She retired from teaching on June 14 after 34 years, which means she can devote herself even more wholly to the work of the nonprofit.
“I’m going to take a leap of faith,” Rocha said. “I think there’s a huge need. And I can’t stand by and do nothing.”
It’s hard to imagine Rocha “doing nothing,” but she explained what she meant by the statement.
“I was looking at where I was and what I was doing, and I couldn’t do either well,” she said. “The Board has been very supportive.”
SRD Straightening Reins is a 501(c)(3) offering interactive therapies to improve adolescent and teen mental health and well-being.
She recently had six youth working with SRD – ages 11 to 17 – who had been suicidal.
“We know when we get the kids to the ranch and into counseling, we can get them to stop self-medicating,” she said, “and get them back in a regular school setting.”
SRD is working with the Hart District, with the kids who aren’t in a place where they can be in a school setting. Rocha is also working with youth who are a part of the foster care system, some of whom are homeless.
The ranch where SRD currently operates is only an acre, so the nonprofit is open to other property options. Like most charities, SRD always needs more resources. Ninety-five cents on the dollar goes directly to programs for the kids, Rocha said.
They have scouts who establish projects on the ranch, which is volunteer labor. A Girl Scout troop helped to plant ground cover. Volunteers from Real Life Church in Valencia created fire clearance around the property and contributed to perimeter fencing for additional privacy.
Rocha is working on sustainability with funding and tackling some of the organization’s short-term and long-term goals, but it’s difficult to obtain government money such as grants.
“Here’s the challenge – when you look at city grants, they want to give you money for a new program, not for operations,” Rocha explained. “Then the Board has to decide, ‘Do we start a new program and stop one that’s working?’ We say no.”
But the animals have to be fed.
“We have some animal sponsors that offset the cost,” she said. “Our feed bill is anywhere from $1,400 to $1,700 dollars a month. And we do get a discount on vet bills.”
They recently had a goat that got sick and died while several kids were on the ranch. Rocha said it’s the type of event that offers a therapeutic opportunity. In this case, there were foster children in the program who had recently lost their mother and it opened some doors for discussion.
“The animal isn’t the only piece. It’s the trained clinician, the equine specialist. They ask, ‘What’s the animal doing and why?’” Rocha explained. “The opportunity to be with a herd of animals gives them time to reflect where they are and what they’re doing.”
Part of the process involves building the confidence to work with a 1,400-pound animal.
“Even the chickens – it’s them being present where they are and the trained staff being able to capitalize on that,” Rocha said. “They can redirect: ‘What do you mean you don’t know how to communicate? What do you think the animal is saying to us?’”
Because of the safety issues involved in working with large animals, those who enter the program have to gain control of any drug or alcohol addiction before they can access services at Straightening Reins. But anyone Rocha can help through the program, she does.
“We don’t turn anybody away if somebody needs services,” she said. “One comes from as far away as Long Beach.”
Most Straightening Reins clients are age 10 to 19, she said, but currently there are individuals in the program age 5 to 23 who are getting horse therapy.
“We’re seeing more in their late teens to early 20s,” Rocha said.
She said they’re employing three foster youth and seeking employment for seven at-risk young people.
When contacted, individuals can start therapy within 72 hours. Part of the advocacy at Straightening Reins involves becoming informed about the person’s school system, the day program and any doctors the family is working with. And it extends to everyone involved, from survivors who have lost someone to siblings of someone battling mental illness.
“It’s coming together,” Rocha said. “I’m not giving up on these kids.”