By Lindsay Steele
The Catholic Messenger
CLINTON — After the loss of her husband, Sharon Gilbert made the decision to channel her grief into an opportunity to help children and adults with special needs.
Ten years ago, Gilbert established Bright Spot in Clinton, a nonprofit, therapeutic horseback riding center. “When there’s something depressing, God will give you a way to grow, to fill your life and to help people. If you trust him, he’ll show you a way.”
Gilbert, a member of Jesus Christ, Prince of Peace Parish, grew up on a farm in Clinton. “I’ve been riding since I was 4 years old. I raised a couple horses there,” she said. She pursued a career in nursing, working in different areas in hospitals and clinics and serving at refugee camps in different countries. She married later in life and moved to California, where she spent 20 happy years alongside her husband.
She was devastated by her husband’s death in 2010 and wondered, “What do I do now?”
Gilbert spent a week in prayer and felt a calling to return to Clinton to find a way to help people through horseback riding. Though she was unsure how to make it happen, she took a leap of faith and bought a 4.8-acre farm in Clinton. Everything “kind of fell together” as she started meeting people willing to help her establish a ministry. She got in touch with PATH International, a nonprofit association that provides equine-assisted activities to persons with emotional, physical and learning disabilities. They provided a framework for Gilbert to start her ministry.
She chose the name Bright Spot in homage to the family farm of her childhood, which her father lovingly called “Bright Spot.”
At Bright Spot, a team of instructors and volunteers share their passion for horses with more than 20 local individuals who have physical and/or developmental challenges. Therapeutic horseback riding can improve core strength, self-confidence, social skills, cognitive growth, communication skills and the ability to develop trust in others, Gilbert said. One child with autism experienced a dramatic reduction in meltdowns after becoming involved at Bright Spot. “It helped him with emotional impulse control.”
Participants “just get so excited about being able to ride,” Gilbert said, noting that participants may use side walkers or ride in the arena independently with supervision. “These are people who might not be able to play sports or other things.”
“Honestly, working with the students just makes your days so much brighter,” said Elaina Yoerger, 20, an instructor and fellow Prince of Peace parishioner who started as a side walker four years ago. “They’re such amazing people. They’re kind, sweet, funny and so positive! They always have the best stories to tell whether it be something of that day or something that happened to them when they were a little kid.”
Therapeutic horseback riding has been beneficial for Gilbert, as well. Her trust in God has increased during the past 10 years as she watches the ministry grow. None of it would have been possible if she hadn’t said “yes” to God’s call. The ministry “has given me a new purpose… it’s been a really big blessing. God is full of blessings if you just trust him.”