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HIGH SPRINGS – How thrilled would any child be to get a FaceTime visit from one of their favorite miniature therapy horses? That’s exactly what’s happening all around the nation as Mr. Jorge and various Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses drop in for a visit and a story.

With the nation in quarantine, the Gentle Carousel Mini Horses and their caretakers, Jorge and Debbie Garcia-Bengochea, have found ways to help cheer up children and adults in hospitals and rehabilitation centers around the country.

Therapy Horses Practice Social Distancing

“Normally, the charity would be visiting with people one-on-one and preparing for the library programs we do every year,” said Debbie. Since the couple and the therapy horses are observing social distancing along with the rest of the world, they have found innovative ways to continue the therapy program using social media.

In some cases, children have met the therapy horses at a Ronald McDonald House or hospital.  When they return to their home states, the couple and the horses can follow up with them. If they have met a specific horse somewhere, Debbie and Jorge try to have that horse check in with the child via FaceTime.

“People ask us if we’re bored since we can’t leave the farm and volunteers can't come over,” Debbie said. “Far from it. We’re just as busy as ever talking to children using FaceTime in our living room along with the horses.”

In addition, Jorge has been calling some of their long-time supporters and friends just to keep in touch with those he can’t FaceTime.

The organization has about a million social media followers. “Some people are so excited about the telephone calls they post about them on their Facebook pages,” Debbie said. When he calls, they tell him their story. Everyone is facing challenges right now. They get so excited that they call their friends and say, “The real Jorge just called me.”

The couple, other volunteers and the horses returned from New York City just four weeks ago.  They were visiting hospitals and also were at the Javits Convention Center (now a hospital) doing a large international toy festival along with NBC Universal Disney.

“This was a toy fair, which was not open to the public,” said Debbie. The event was open to distributors from all around the world. Children from Make-A-Wish® Foundation as well as terminally ill adults were allowed to attend the event and meet the horses.

As it is unlikely the quarantine will be lifted in time for the charity's normal library visits, they are videotaping “StoryTime on the Farm with Mr. Jorge.”

Jorge will be reading stories that include different horses that usually go to the libraries to visit with the children. “We will have videos of the horses doing some of the things that are included in the story being read to the children,” said Debbie. “It should be really fun for us and for the children,” she said.

The couple is also doing videos for children on things they can do at home…the types of things kids can tune into and enjoy. “We hope that will make their time at home more enjoyable,” said. Debbie.

Major Fundraisers Cancelled

On the down side, the two biggest fundraisers of the year had to be cancelled this year. The 501(c)(3) non-profit organization relies on fundraisers to pay for the work they do. “We don’t charge for our visits,” Debbie said. The Magical Gala, which is usually held at the end of March, was cancelled. In addition, a big Walkathon, which is scheduled for the end of April, has been severely curtailed.

The event is scheduled for the McKethan Brothers Training Center just north of Ocala, the training track used to train Triple Crown winner American Pharaoh. Although the event hasn’t been totally cancelled, it has been so severely downsized as to be a totally different event than was originally planned. Instead of stands full of people, kids who were planning to set up their own lemonade stands, additional horse riders and horse drawn carriages and lots more, there will be two horses walking around the track.

The event will be available for the public to see online, but not in person.  Folks can watch it from home on Facebook. Miniature Therapy Horse Scout, weighing in at no more than 100 lbs., will be walking the track with a 2,000 lb. Percheron named Tiny Prince Charming.

Help by Sponsoring Virtual Walkathon

“If people want to sponsor one of the horses for walking around the track, that would be great,” said Debbie. “People were excited about coming to this event, but social distancing has changed all that.” The horses will begin at the starting gate and go one lap around the track.

The couple is working alone right now. Volunteers are quarantined as well so the couple is busy feeding, grooming and taking care of the horses and other animals on their farm. “Expenses keep on coming. The horses need to be insured, fed and receive the same medical attention as any other time as do the livestock guardian dogs that protect the horses,” said Debbie. “We had counted on the two large fundraisers to help the charity financially, but that’s not going to happen this year,” she said.

Even though these are challenging times, the couple says they are going to continue to look at the positive ways they can send their love out to people. “We are always looking for creative ways to stay positive and send positive care out into the world,” said Debbie.

One item currently in the works is the possibility of the Ryan Seacrest Foundation, another non-profit 501(c)(3) organization dedicated to inspiring today’s youth through entertainment and education-focused initiative, running the Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses videos and live feed from the farm in their 10 studios located in various hospitals. The horses have visited the studios in person many times over the years.

“We’re still in the talking stages,” said Debbie, “but if it happens, hundreds of children will be able to see the horses and hear Jorge read them stories while they are in the hospital. How wonderful would that be?”

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