Social worker Kenya Thornton devotes her life to supporting families touched by domestic violence and sexual assault. It’s a stressful job that can take a toll.
Fortunately for Kenya, she discovered the perfect place to go when she needs to decompress. A passionate equestrian, she heads to Cash Lovell Stables & Riding Academy for a dose of self-care.
“When I feel like I don’t have power here, I redirect my energy there,” says Kenya, who founded the nonprofit Eliza’s Helping Hands in 2015 to provide emergency support and a variety of advocacy services to survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault in Winston-Salem. “I have always loved horses and learn a lot just by going.”
Now, thanks to a grant from The Women’s Fund, Kenya is sharing her passion with girls through PEARLS (Preparing Eager Achievers to Redirect their Lives Successfully). The program provides holistic support for Black and Latina girls ages 12 to 17, including counseling, workshops and activities like equine-assisted therapy that provide social, emotional, and career-development learning opportunities.
“Oftentimes, the work Eliza’s Helping Hands does start with the parents, but there is a chance to tap into what is needed with the kids,” explains Kenya, who began her career at Family Services working with perpetrators of domestic abuse before shifting her focus to survivors and their children.
“I wanted to share what I’ve learned working with horses with young women who may be vulnerable. It’s a huge confidence and self-esteem booster. The girls love it.”
Jennifer Hernandez-Gomez, a junior at West Forsyth High School who participates in PEARLS, had never been near a horse before her first visit to the stables in April.
“I’m really shy — meeting new people is nerve-wracking for me and I get anxious,” Jennifer says. “But it was really amazing. Being around horses, it calms you down. I don’t feel worried about anything when I am there.”
Owner and trainer Parker Lovell put the girls at ease by spending their first several visits showing them what it takes to sustain a horse farm — from fixing broken fences on the grounds to mucking the stalls and caring for the animals. And when the girls circled up on the stable floor for a time of sharing, Parker was the first to speak:
“They were very guarded, so right off the bat I just put my story out there. My daddy committed suicide when I was 9 years old. I have felt the loss of a husband after a long-term illness. I told them they were in a safe place to share with somebody who knows what hurt is.”
As the girls seated on the sawdust began to open up about their own lives, one of Parker’s horses calmly walked among them. “I told them, ‘Some of you have big, big dreams. I want you to know that you can do anything you want. These horses will help and so will I.’”
Kenya believes her grandmother, for whom Eliza’s Helping Hands is named, would be pleased with the program.
“I see how this program teaches young women to be strong. My grandmother was a tobacco farmer and businesswoman who grew to be able to keep her land when a lot of women, particularly women of color, were not able to do that,” Kenya says.
“She believed in the value of hard work and giving back to her community. I wanted to do something that she would be proud of.”