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Saturday, Oct 25, 2014
Steve Otto Columns

Quantum Leap horses give veterans a lift

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You don't have to know much about horses to understand you are in a special place.

Quantum Leap Farm is in Odessa, a few miles off the Veterans Expressway and seemingly from a time in Florida you may have forgotten.

You can tell you're close when you go by the alpaca farm and the road cuts across Florida wetland dotted with mossy pines. Your blood pressure eases down to non-stress levels and you wish you were in jeans instead of polyester.

Drive right up to the entrance in front of the arena and barns of Quantum Leap Farm, with its 10 acres spread out behind the buildings. Get out and you just feel different.

Sue Levitt, the farm's director of development, was walking out of the arena when we arrived. I glanced behind her at the ramp and platform inside, with a chairlift next to it that hoists riders with certain disabilities onto horses.

It was late morning and she was heading to a fenced-in area where about a dozen riders were in the saddle or standing around with horses.

“That's our equine co-facilitated mental health program,” she said, although to me it appeared like a bunch of people standing around talking to horses.

“Those riders are long-term veterans with a variety of issues,” she said. “What they do is use the horses as metaphors for any or all of those issues. We've had some extraordinary results.”

As you meander around the farm you notice the size of the staff seems small. “There are 10 staffers,” Levitt says, “mostly qualified counselors; but we have just over 500 volunteers who come out and do anything that has to be done. We are currently serving just over 1,100 clients.”

She caught me with that number but showed me the great variety of programs for people of all ages with any manner of special needs.

“And you can't forget the families, either,” she said, and in fact there is a special program for the spouses of wounded veterans as well as their families.

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Like a lot of good ideas, Quantum Farms came from an unlikely source.

Edie Ebbert Dopking was headed in another direction. The Bowling Green, Kentucky, native's degrees were in nuclear medicine and marketing. With those credentials, she opened a medical imaging center in Clearwater, near where her parents lived.

But there also was the horsey side. “I've always had horses in Kentucky and when I came down here I began volunteering at the Bakas Equestrian Center, which has a wonderful therapeutic riding program for children.”

Knowing this was something she somehow wanted to be involved with, she returned to the University of South Florida to pursue her doctorate.

“I had some experience working with patients with neuro-degenerative diseases,” she says, and she wanted to do something with adults. “At the same time I was at USF the James Haley Veterans Hospital nearby was dealing more and more with the issues of terribly wounded veterans.”

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Out of that came Quantum Leap Farm. “When we got it the farm was just 10 acres surrounded by an old barbed-wire fence,” Dopking says. Selling her MRI facility, she launched full time into the farm and its programs. “It wasn't easy,” she says. “We don't have an endowment or anything stuck away for a rainy day.

“We ask our clients to donate what they can, but most of them cannot afford to cover their own expenses for the specialized programs. For many of these veterans, just getting transportation out here is a major issue.”

But, according to the staff and volunteers, it pays off in huge dividends for the veterans.

I didn't get to spend nearly as much time as needed to see everything that goes on here. The horses themselves are special, chosen for their gentleness and other special characteristics. There is even a small herd of goats. “Some of the veterans are intimidated by the horses and (we) begin by letting them get used to being around the goats and move on from there,” Levitt says.

There is growth. When I was there the staff was moving into a new building thanks to Azzarelli Builders. A new out-building was taking shape — the result of a Boy Scout's Eagle project.

The farm could, of course, use financial help. “We'd like to have more 'rider scholarships' for the veterans,” Dopking says. “And we always need volunteers.”

Tell you what: Good things happen here. If you're interested, give the farm a call at (813) 9209250.

sotto@tampatrib.com

(813) 259-7809

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