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Monday, Mar 25, 2019
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Lithia ranch 'rescues' horses, youngsters

LITHIA - It took just one day of giving to bring it all into focus for Angela Spillas. It started with horses and kids in 2011 when Spillas and her husband, John, decided to treat the children living at Everyday Blessings to A Christmas to Remember on a ranch in Lithia. The original sponsor had pulled out, leaving the sibling group care and adoption center in Thonotosassa with no one to treat the youngsters. "Animals can change things," Spillas said. The joy she saw in the children's eyes as they interacted with the horses was just about all it took, she said.
"Some of these kids had never even seen a horse before," Spillas said. And it changed them. Spillas, an ordained minister who grew up in South Tampa and lives in Bloomingdale, set her sights on what she considers God's plan for her. Now she and a band of volunteers regularly get to see the joy on the faces of children visiting her nonprofit Rugged Cross Youth Ranch and Rescue on 19 leased acres off Lithia-Pinecrest Road. The Spillases have rescued three mustangs, a quarter horse, a thoroughbred and an abused Rocky Mountain rocking horse. Some 30 to 40 youngsters every week, both home-schoolers and children with physical and emotional disaranch life and, in many cases, cure their own ills — or, at least, learn to cope with them in a new way. "We've got kids from all spectrums of life," Spillas said. "Some are hurting physically due to abuse. Some are hurting spiritually and mentally." Some have cerebral palsy. Many have some form of autism. Everyday Blessings, A Kid's Place group foster home in Brandon and Tampa's Joshua House for abused and abandoned children, bring youngsters to the ranch for a special kind of therapy. Several home-school students also spend time at Rugged Cross each week, cleaning the chicken coup, playing with Bacon, the potbelly pig, chasing the geese, riding horses and mucking stalls. "Animals change things, and they change these kids," Spillas said. "And the (rescued) horses, which are getting love and care, they change, too." Physical therapist Stephanie Folckemer works regularly at the ranch with her clients, many of whom have behavioral issues such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder. Some also have obsessive-compulsive disorder. "We try to establish a relationship between the kids and the horses, because most of these kids have social issues," Folckemer said. "We get them to care for and talk to the horses, to make a connection," something they may rarely do with other human beings. "They see an animal and their quick reactions might scare the animals. We've seen them change their behavior, to be aware of how their behavior affects the animals," Folckemer said. They realize they have to act differently to get a positive reaction from the horses. One youngster contacted Spillas directly. She had been raped at 15 and had gone through therapy, but her family could no longer afford it. She needed and wanted help, Spillas said. "Her confidence has totally boosted," Spillas said. "She doesn't look down anymore when she talks to you. She no longer avoids contact with people. She is getting her childhood back." Alissa Jansen volunteers at the ranch and brings her own home-schooled children. Her children enjoy the ranch, and Jansen said volunteering helps fulfill God's mission for her, "to be the salt of the Earth and the light of the world" through good deeds. Rebekah Ricci, who also home-schools her children, has been volunteering at the ranch since meeting the Spillases at The Crossing Church, where they all attend. "It allows our kids to see what Christ is really about," she said. "We're serving others and being the hands and feet of Jesus for people who don't have what we have." Much of the funding for the ranch has come from John Spillas' Florida Construction and Property Management Services. But with the tough economy, some funding has dried up, Angela Spillas said. The ranch will host a hoedown March 16 for 300 people that will include line dancing, country music and fun for the kids. To learn more, visit www.ruggedcrossranch.com, email [email protected] or call (813) 679-8386.

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