The power of STAR

Sherri Gardner HowellFarragut, Kitchen Table Talk, Loudon, South Knox, West Knox

A lot of good ideas are born from the unbridled minds of young people faced with choosing a thesis project for their master’s degrees.


STAR, Shangri-La Therapeutic Academy of Riding, in Lenoir City and South Knoxville is one of them. Lynn Klimas Petr began STAR in 1987 as her therapeutic recreation master’s thesis project at UTK. The program started with five riders, one horse, three volunteers and one employee (Lynn) at her farm.

STAR takes their “minis” to assisted living and nursing home facilities to cheer the residents. During COVID-19 Phase 2 re-opening, they were able to take them for outside window visits and social distancing visits outside.

Today, STAR has two facilities – the main campus in Lenoir City and a second location in South Knoxville. The programs of STAR serve children and adults from more than 11 East Tennessee counties, ages 4 to seniors. Clients include individuals with physical, mental and neurological disabilities or those considered at-risk. They have programs for veterans and an outreach with mini-horses at nursing homes and assisted living facilities.  In 2018, STAR served 249 individuals with a total of 4,715 hours of equine-assisted activities.

Truthfully, STAR is one of those nonprofits that rock along with not a lot of attention. Donors who support STAR are passionate about the work that goes on there, rightfully so. The STAR staff and teachers budget the organization’s hopes and dreams based on the generosity of those donors, fees from classes, grants and fundraisers.

Fundraisers … remember those? For STAR, Bridles and Blue Jeans provided a fun evening for several hundred people and raised a lot of money for the care and upkeep of the horses and general STAR expenses. They were known for their terrific auction items – horsey and otherwise – and for providing an enjoyable and educational night.

Bridles and Blue Jeans has now been canceled for this year but the auction will continue! More than 200 items will be available for an online auction from Sept. 14-20. All the details of how you can register to bid and participate are available here.

Here’s some motivation to sign on and help. Lynn told me this story, one of many she has, but one that is so poignant in this time of “essential” and “non-essential” services.

STAR, like most nonprofits that weren’t providing food or medical, was not considered an essential service when time came to hunker down for COVID-19. Lynn says they were really in a difficult position on many different fronts.

“We had just started spring sessions, which is one of our two largest sessions,” said Lynn. “We started on a Sunday, had the second on Monday, then, wham. Everything was closing.”

While some of their clients are independent and can be one-on-one with the horses, many are not. Some require both staff handlers and volunteers to sit on the horses and ride.

“The other issue was that we have a large volunteer force without whom we couldn’t operate. Many are retirees and many have health issues that would put them at risk. So we made the call to close. It was devastating to our students.”

PPP money helped Lynn keep all the full-time staff on the payroll as office staff primarily worked from home, and those who took care of the horses worked in shifts.

Lynn says she never doubts the impact of the STAR programs, but, if she did, the three calls that came over a couple of days just a few weeks into the shutdown are proof of how essential STAR can be.

“Three who are in our veterans program called – none of them knowing anyone else had. One was a client who suffers from Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder. This is a very fragile population, and individuals with PTSD rarely reach out. They don’t ask for help. He was frantic, asking if he could please come to the barn.

“I knew we had to make it possible. Because they are independent, we were able to let all three come at different times. The one with PTSD went into the barn, spent time with the horse and came out a different person. He told me he just needed that time to ground, to de-stress and find that calm center he has with the horses.

“That is what is so incredible about what happens with these horses. At that moment, for that man, what we were able to offer wasn’t just essential, it was dire.”

Read more about STAR here and sign up for the auction!

Sherri Gardner Howell has been writing about family life for newspapers and magazines since 1987. She lives in West Knoxville, is married to Neville Howell and has two sons and three grandsons.

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