STAR Minis in Motion spread cheer to Concord’s Avenir residents

Tracy Haun OwensFeature, Get Up & Go, West Knox

Flash can nod yes and no, and he believes he’s secretly a horse. Like Flash, his friend Hodie can play ball and enjoys being hugged and fussed over. The two miniature donkeys made a recent afternoon visit to the residents of Avenir Memory Care (formerly Clarity Pointe) on Concord Road.

Often accompanied by a miniature horse pal, Flash and Hodie make monthly visits to Avenir, to the delight of the residents who interact with them. They are part of the Minis in Motion program at STAR – Shangri-La Therapeutic Academy of Riding. With locations in Loudon and Knox counties, the 31-year-old not-for-profit STAR was one of the nation’s pioneers in equine-assisted therapy.

STAR’s volunteer coordinator, Julia Cronin, says Avenir is a favorite place for the minis and their volunteer handlers.

“The minis bring joy with them, and it is truly contagious. The residents love talking to them, and I’m not exaggerating when I say the minis listen,” Cronin says.

Volunteer Betsy Luther, leading the good-natured Hodie, says she loves this post-retirement gig – and the donkeys themselves.

“They’re such sweet, gentle creatures,” Luther says.

Flash spreads a little holiday cheer at a visit to Avenir with volunteer handler Peggy Pemberton.

“Our volunteers benefit almost as much as the participants do,” Cronin adds. “To bring joy and boost morale in another person is truly a blessing.”

Cronin says the Minis in Motion program continues to grow, with trips to schools and to other care facilities, and is always in need of “reliable, friendly faces to accompany our equine partners on visits.”

STAR’s biggest volunteer need is for helpers in the therapeutic riding program. Cronin says that because STAR holds lessons six days a week, the program often needs 50 or more volunteers a day. All get hands-on training, and no previous experience with horses is needed.

STAR was founded by Lynn Petr, now executive director, in 1987 in southwest Knox County. In 2002, the not-for-profit moved to 60 acres in Loudon County, and in 2016 began developing a satellite location in South Knox County. STAR’s other equine-assisted programs include Heroes & Horses, for veterans with disabilities, and a Changing Strides program for at-risk youth.

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