Every year, Grace Community Church in Noblesville, Indiana shuts its doors, cancels its services and sends its congregation out to do service projects all over the city.  This year, World Next Door sent a team of volunteer journalists from Grace’s congregation to tell some of the stories from the weekend.

This is one of those stories.

To read all of the Weekend of Service articles from 2011, click here.


By Curt Austin

When I was a young boy, my family owned a beautiful American Quarter horse named Blaze. When given the reins, he would run like the wind, his hooves pounding the ground with a rhythm that still makes my heart sing.

Weekend of Service provides opportunities to make all types of new friends.

And in those moments I would lean forward in the saddle and permit my imagination to take me to far-away places and experience grand adventures.  I spent many hours riding Blaze in the open fields of central Indiana.  He was a gentle giant that allowed me to share many peaceful afternoons on his back, walking through the woods and fields of my youth.

More than thirty years later, I still have a soft spot in my heart for that animal.  I suppose that fondness is the reason I quickly agreed to volunteer at the Agape Therapeutic Riding ministry for this year’s Weekend of Service.

Painting a fence requires close supervision.

But my eagerness turned to disappointment when I received my assignment which involved watching members of Grace Community Church dig flower beds and paint fences.  The idea of watching other people work is, let’s be honest, boring. But I overcame my disappointment with a secret hope that, under the cover of journalistic research I might be allowed to groom a horse, muck out a stable or, at the very least, slip an apple to one of the grateful animals.  I even packed a Granny Smith, just in case.

In truth, I was unprepared for the importance of the work that was scheduled to take place at Agape.  I had no idea the full impact it could have on the lives of every person involved.

The Power of Therapy

If you visit Agape, you will meet Debbie Laird.  Debbie started helping at Agape in 1998 and was appointed Director in 2009.  You need only spend a few minutes with her to understand why she has dedicated so much of her life to the program and why she is the perfect choice to represent the ministry.  While it is accurate to say that Debbie has a passion for horses, her true love is the people Agape serves.

This made perfectly evident when Debbie quickly pointed to a table in the viewing area, covered with pictures.  Each picture was of a child, either on or beside a horse.  Debbie knew each child by name and she enthusiastically related their stories, with special attention on the impact Agape makes in their life.

Team leader, Detlef Rathman and Agape employee/volunteer Joe Sullivan survey the completed project.

Debbie related the child’s story, the power of the therapy and its impact on each child’s life.  She stopped talking only long enough to look for a favorite picture; and another and then another.  With each print she would put her hands over her heart and tell the story as if the child were her very own: “This is Susie and she has made such progress… This young man just lights up when he’s here… Now look at this!”  Debbie paused, her tanned, smiling face reflecting a deep personal delight.

The picture she chose was of a little girl sitting on the back of a horse.  The brown-haired youngster, perhaps seven years old, was smiling from ear to ear.  Leaning forward with her cheek pressed into the horse’s mane, the little girl’s arms were stretched around the animal’s neck, hugging it tightly.  Debbie smiled wide.  Her already bright and charming grin grew even bigger.

“Some things are more important that money,” Debbie said. “Where else can you find joy like this?”

Work Begins

Outside, as the team gathered to begin their day, the morning sun slowly melted frost from the green pastures surrounding the Agape complex.  Horses lined the tall fences, watching the activity in the parking lot.  Despite the warming sun, cool air lingered and steam billowed from the horses’ muzzles with each breath.

The hard-working team made quick work of overgrown flowerbeds.

The volunteers took advantage of their warm jackets, hats and gloves and huddled together as Detlef Rathman, the team leader divided the 21 workers into smaller groups.  He gave a few last minute instructions and then the volunteers collected the gardening tools and with eager enthusiasm, the work began.

In a matter of minutes, the sound of electric trimmers, garden rakes, and gardening sheers mingled with hearty laughter and calls for assistance in one location or another.  The team removed dead and dried cone flowers, day lilies, and black-eyed Susans.  Within an hour, the workers had shed their coats and gloves and the once-over-grown flower beds had the appearance of a finely manicured garden.  As Detlef proclaimed, “When in doubt, take it out!”


Joe Sullivan, our guide for the day and Agape’s stable assistant, repeatedly hauled away brush and dead plants, driving back and forth in the farm’s well-used 4×4, its gear box rattling loudly with each pass.

A practical man, Joe has worked with Agape for more than 15 years.  He has a long history of working with horses and performance riding.  He is as gentle with the group of volunteers as he is with his horses.

When Joe and I stopped to talk during lunch, I asked how people could afford the therapies offered by Agape.  He wasted no time in pointing out that the volunteers, just like this team, make it possible for many clients to receive scholarships and reduced-price care.

The paint progress as viewed from the stables.

In truth, volunteers are the very backbone of Agape Therapeutic Riding Resources.  Many of the part-time employees offer their services above and beyond the few hours for which they get paid. It was no accident that Joe referred to himself several times as an employee-slash-volunteer.

The Value of a Volunteer

After lunch, while the adults finished raking leaves at the edge of the woods, the kids moved to painting the fence.  I believe this was the real reason they came.  Standing in the paddock, with brushes in hand, the kids had the opportunity to be as close to the horses as possible.  It was even more enjoyable when the horses came close to get a better view of the commotion.

Like a scene from Tom Sawyer, Joe stood back and admired the kids’ work, congratulating them on a job well done and gently directing them when they missed a spot or two.  In a matter of half-an-hour, the entire fence had been painted, effectively covering the dents and dings and hiding the flakes and bites.

As the kids finished their work and the adults made their way back to their cars, I realized that Joe was right.  When one person volunteers, whether to clean the grounds, paint a fence, muck a stall or even pull some weeds, that person releases those maintenance dollars to other areas within the ministry.

Team work is key to this project’s success.

Perhaps a well raked garden bed represents a riding lesson for a disabled child.  Or a painted fence is equivalent to a bag of feed for a therapy horse.  When an entire team of volunteers arrives and spends the day, it can add up to hundreds of dollars for the program and could mean the difference of horse therapy to a child who would otherwise be unable to benefit from the program…and that special bond between a boy and his horse.

Very few have what it takes to work with disabled kids.

Not every person can saddle and brush a horse.

But anyone can pull a weed or paint a board.

And everyone can take some time to make a difference.

And who knows? If you’re lucky, you just might get to slip an apple to a horse along the way.

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Next Steps
    • For more information about ways you can get involved, call Agape Therapeutic Riding Resources, LLC at 317-773-7433 or visit their website: www.agaperiding.org.
    Next Steps

About the Author: Every year, Grace Community Church in Noblesville, Indiana shuts its doors, cancels its services and sends its congregation out to do service projects all over the city. This team of volunteer journalists from Grace’s congregation told some of the stories from the weekend.

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  1. Jim.M said... 


    November 11th, 2011 at 11:37 pm  

    Austin, What a fantastic look at Agape.

    Seriously, no play on words. We see the Fathers love through your heart while visiting the Grounds at Agape Therapeutic Riding ministry..

    What a beautiful word picture in your description of the joy Debbie experiences as she pours herself into those she serves.

    For anyone who has not been there, it’s just a few miles up the road, run up and take a look even if you don’t have an apple.

  2. Barry Rodriguez said... 


    November 14th, 2011 at 3:19 pm  

    That’s a really interesting perspective on volunteering. When a person volunteers, they free up the ministry to do more of what it’s meant to do. I like that! Great job, Curt!

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