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Judy Beckett is a passionate person - hard working, empathetic and driven. In the last five years, Beckett has changed virtually every aspect of her life in order to make her dream, Cornerstone Therapeutic Riding Center (CTRC), come to life. Though there have been overwhelming setbacks and obstacles along the way. Today CRTC operates out of Creek Hollow Ranch, which is on the far east end of the unincorporated town of Ramona in San Diego County, California. The 350-acre facility provides a peaceful environment surrounded by nature where founder and Executive Director Beckett — along with her two assistant trainers, approximately 75 volunteers and seven wonderful horses — help 25 to 30 clients each and every week. Cornerstone’s clients are men, women, boys and girls who deal with a number of physical, cognitive and emotional challenges. CTRC offers traditional therapeutic ridingand Operation Saddle Up,which serves military personnel returning from Iraq and Afghanistan. Saddle Up clients may have war-related injuries, post-traumatic stress disorder or traumatic brain injuries.
Sir Winston Churchill, thought to be one of the greatest wartime leaders in history, would understand the plight of these young men. He is credited with the quote “The outside of a horse is good for the inside of a man”. Beckett agrees, she knows the healing power of animals, having turned to her beloved pets all her life when things got tough. In adulthood, her dream changed from making lots of money to help buy back a special family home, to creating a therapeutic riding program to touch the lives and hearts of people in need. When making money was her dream that is what she did, earning good money while in college working for a multilevel marketing company, she then took a bold step and opened her own t-shirt company with a friend. She was Development Director for the Better Business Bureau and made a very nice income when she worked for an auto dealer in Encinitas as the Service Manager. It took her father having a heart attack to make Beckett slow down and reassess her life. “I prayed for guidance, took a year off of work to help my dad, realized I needed to make some changes”.
In 2006, Beckett moved from a condominium in Cardiff California which was walking distance from the beach, shopping, restaurants and anything one might want or need, to a modular home on the grounds at Creek Hollow Ranch. Living on an isolated ranch to make her dream come true was not Beckett’s first choice, but there she was. Her job as Director of Development for the San Diego Better Business Bureau gave her the knowledge and many contacts to find just the right location for her program - or so she thought. Her vision, at that time, was to purchase a facility close to Interstate 15 for easy access. She found a facility with the help of the Real Estate Assets Dept of San Diego County and thought she was ready to go when San Diego elected a new mayor who changed the program, making that property inaccessible. Beckett was not sure what to do, and began calling the people who were helping and supporting her during this planning phase telling them she had to go back to square one.
One of those people was familiar with Creek Hollow Ranch and introduced Beckett to Colleen Burman, owner of the ranch, who immediately recognized that this woman and this program would be a very good addition to Creek Hollow. Though the ranch is only about 50 miles inland from Cardiff, where Judy’s condominium was, the lifestyle at Creek Hollow was as different as it could be. She would have to plan trips “into town” for supplies, and food, would live alone with virtually no neighbors, though there are others living on the 350 acres, Beckett has her own 8-acre corner of the property far from the others who call Creek Hollow Ranch home. It was up to her to take the land ‘donated’ to CTRC (in the form of a long term use agreement) and turn scrub, brush, a few trees and lots of dirt, into a Therapeutic Riding Center worthy of earning affiliation with the Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship, International (PATH). PATH was formerlyknown as North American Riding for the Handicapped Association (NAHRA). In order to transform the land, Beckett had to find people to help her and money with which to buy the equipment and supplies that were needed.
Her mentor and long time friend, Debi Parker said, “Judy was scared, she did not know if she would be able to live alone, so far away from everything and everyone, but she was committed to make this program come to life.” Parker founded REINS therapeutic riding center in 1984, is a Special Education teacher, holds the Master Instructor level, which is the highest certification level from PATH, was on the Education committee for PATH and has been a National Examiner for the international organization. REINS is one of the oldest and most respected Therapeutic Riding programs in San Diego and Riverside counties. Parker says, “I have mentored lots of people through the training and certification program. Judy Beckett is very special, her passion and commitment to this program is second to none. She knew she wanted to work with children, but when the need for helping our Wounded Warriors became apparent, Judy stepped up and created a fabulous program.” When Becket was Service Manager for an auto dealership in Encinitas she offered free “Auto Service” classes on her own time in the evening for clients, mostly women, simply to help them understand what was going on with their vehicles. Finding creative solutions to everyday problems is something that Beckett has done very well in her adult life, helping people is what makes her happy.
As a little girl, she had dogs, hamsters, turtles all the normal pets. Being from an upper middle class family, she also had the opportunity to take riding lessons, eventually getting her own horse at age 15 when her parents divorced. That gift from her father might have been life changing for the young, confused, scared, angry teenager. Beckett says, “After having gone to private Elementary school which focused on academics and served high achievers, going to a public high school, I was very bored.” Though she got in trouble, having the responsibility of her horse kept her from going too far out of line. The horses grounded her, kept her focused, and gave her an outlet for her boundless energy. While in college she saw a flier calling for volunteers for REINS, Judy was intrigued about the concept of therapeutic riding. She volunteered immediately, becoming first a program volunteer, and then an office volunteer, eventually Parker hired her as office manager. Beckett met Lori Piccirillo, a Certified Therapeutic Riding instructor for REINS who became one of Beckett's best friends and most ardent supporters. Piccirillo said, “I met Judy in the late 80's at a program called REINS. She was one of my first volunteers. She was dedicated even as a volunteer and never missed a shift and ALWAYS went the extra mile. She was a beautiful rider (still is) and helped me tremendously in all areas of life- I moved out from Chicago with my dog and Judy was my only friend. After years of working at REINS, I started managing the therapeutic riding program at Helen Woodward Animal Center. Judy would come as a volunteer, give the staff free riding lessons and help me work horses.”
Parker and Piccirillo encouraged and supported Beckett as she meticulously planned her move to Ramona and the Therapeutic Riding Center. Beckett used her connections to buy or borrow equipment, recruit volunteers and supplies. Diane Chapman an acquaintance of Beckett and the CTRC program said, “I had been boarding my horses at Creek Hollow Ranch before Judy and Cornerstone began. So it was nice and inspirational to see her start and grow. With a blank piece of land donated by Colleen Burman, Judy set out with a few people and a lot of sweat, tears and faith in God. From grading the land to setting up the poles for the arena, Judy had a smile on her face. She hosted numerous ‘volunteer’ days to help her set up the stables. Her mom was there and other friends who donated the drinks and food. Riding my horse on the trail, I could see the new riders and volunteers. Such joy and smiles fromthem all. Judy weathered the fires and the first ever Cornerstone BBQ fundraiser with not as many people as she had hoped. But she persevered!”
THE FIRES OF 2007
By fall of 2007, Beckett had lived at Creek Hollow for one year and was used to the ‘country’ lifestyle which meant early morning feeding of 6 or 7 horses, long drives to town for work, supplies, and meetings with CTRC supporters. She organized many workdays, cleared and graded land for an arena and set up portable barns loaned to the program by Colleen Burman. Beckett and her volunteers put up fencing, a shed to serve as home to the program, and worked with the horses to get them ready for the job ahead of them as Therapy horses. Beckett recruited and trained program volunteers and was on track to launch her first lessons on November 1, 2007 but the worst wild fires in San Diego history blew through Creek Hollow Ranch in late October 2007 (see slide show for pictures of the devastation). Though Judy’s home was spared, the 120 mph winds and fire destroyed much of what she and her volunteers had worked so tirelessly on. Beckett says, “I was in town getting supplies and I heard of the fire, I tried to get back up to the ranch but the roads were already closed. I was so worried about the horses in those portable stalls; there was nothing I could do. But Colleen (Burman) and her wonderful staff moved them all to the arena’s near the mare motel where there is very little brush, hoping they would be safe there. They all made it, even though there was a tremendous amount of damage to Creek Hollow Ranch.”
Beckett was overwhelmed and unsure, again, of what to do or where to go next. She prayed, asking for guidance “Lord, is this what I should be doing? “ Obviously, the answer was yes. Volunteers came forward, donations were made, the fire damaged portable stalls were removed and pipe corrals were installed thanks to a grant from a local benefactor. Beckett said she got a call asking what she needed, the next day she had a check. That was her sign to keep going.
The program launched in 2008. Operation Saddle Up was an afterthought. Beckett had not planned to serve wounded warriors, but her many contacts made her aware of the need. While rebuilding the facilities at Creek Hollow, she participated in a Pilot Program for Operation Saddle Up, eventually adding that program to the Therapeutic Riding Program at Cornerstone. Becket says, “A good day is when I can sit down at night, with a cold beverage, and say, every person who I saw today experienced something special.”
So many people offered moving stories about how Beckett and Cornerstone have changed their lives; I cannot do justice to the reach and power of this program and this person without mentioning a few of them here:
Brenda is a dedicated volunteer who heard Beckett in a radio interview and brought her teenage children to a volunteer training, hoping to get them involved in something good. She broke her ankle sometime after meeting Beckett and was laid up and unable to work for 6 months. Brenda had only been married to her second husband a short while when she needed his help 24/7 due to her broken ankle. She felt like a burden physically and financially. She got very depressed. When she was able to walk, she decided to investigate volunteering at CTRC herself. “I really believe that Cornerstone saved my marriage and saved my life. Judy helped me learn to calm myself down so that I would not affect the horses with my nervous energy. That has helped every aspect of my life. My husband sees how happy and healthy I am when I can come out here. The horses are wonderful, being near them is a treat.”
Kay has been a professional horse trainer for over 20 years and now volunteers with CRTC “I came to that realization after accompanying my husband who is a veteran, to Balboa Naval hospital for some post-surgery rehab/therapy. It really hit home with me after watching these young soldiers come in for therapy with missing limbs etc. one after the other that this was a reality for them for the rest of their lives. Some sat quietly, some would not respond to their therapists, some would laugh and joke with their other "rehab comrades." It also hit me that this was not only a physical issue for them to deal with but also a mental one. It was wonderful to see how they all dealt so strongly with their individual injuries. So it was a "no-brainer" when I saw that add I wanted to help and that is when I met Judy. Judy not only has the responsibility of getting volunteers to help with the programs at Cornerstone, she has many other duties. She has to train the volunteers to work with the clients. She must organize not only the care and feeding of the horses used in the program, but she must always be looking for the next great horse to come into it. She also has to maintain the facility with the help of whoever volunteers their time, and in her "spare" time, she must go to meetings and write grant proposals and host special events to generate income for this great charitable organization. Now I think that is a full plate. This is a very worthwhile program-so worthwhile that our last group of wounded warriors stayed with us twice as long as they were scheduled because they loved being out with the horses and all the volunteers. That says a lot for the program and I will tell you it really makes a nice warm fuzzy spot in your heart when you can see a wounded soldier who was closed at start of program become open friendly and have some fun by the end. “
Julie Crider President of the Cornerstone Board of Directors shares a story about her neighbor Mike “Mike lived 3 doors down; he came back from Iraq with only one leg. He was married at the time, his other leg eventually had to be amputated. His wife left him during that process. We did not see Mike for days, I knew he was very depressed. I told him about the program at Cornerstone, but he was so down he did not think he’d ever do much of anything, especially something so demanding as riding a horse. I persisted and he finally came on the first day of Operation Saddle Up. There was some sort of miscommunication and the guys from Balboa hospital did not come, but all the volunteers were there, so we gave Mike a private session. He was unsure about getting on the horse, but to see his face once he was up there. His smile was amazing, he did walk, trot and canter. He became a regular volunteer and met his current wife at Cornerstone.” The Cornerstone website has a quote by Helen Thompson “In riding a horse, we borrow freedom”. Mike certainly experienced that freedom.
There are many more testimonials I received, but this one wraps it all up very nicely. Beckett’s passion has brought freedom, confidence, balance, strength, friendship and joy to everyone associated with Cornerstone Therapeutic Riding Center; clients, volunteers or friends of the program.