By Christopher Quirk
GILROY - Mariah sat tall on top of her whinnying, shifting
horse named Danny, tending the reins with one relaxed hand. She did not mind
the smell of manure, the dust wafting up to settle on her teeth or the sun
beating down on her dark boots and worn jeans. From the loose smile on her
face, there was no indication that just four days earlier the 12-year-old
had never been within 10 feet of a horse. There was also no indication she
had spent her life bouncing around foster homes.
Mariah's story is typical of the more than 40 children who have participated
in the Teri Davis Patane Memorial Horse Camp for Kids in the past seven years.
The free Holsclaw Road camp - set up in the memory of the eponymous Gilroy
resident who died October 1999 at 32 from Systemic Lupus - offers six disadvantaged
children, age 8 to 12, a week of fresh food, escape from their tumultuous
city lives, and a chance to live the ranch life.
"When you've got something like this, it's a way to reach the really
hard to reach kids," said camp Chief Financial Officer Carmen Patane,
Teri Davis Patane's widower.
Campers learn the basics of riding and caring for a horse. They feed the
horses, clean their hoofs, wash the stables, saddle them and ride them independently.
Campers even sleep as a group in a barn next to the stable.
"They're eating, drinking, sleeping horses," Carmen Patane said.
All six campers beamed Wednesday as they spoke about their experiences from
atop their horses. City dwellers the rest of the year, many campers had forged
deep bonds with their animals, even by day four.
When asked what the highlight of the camp has been, 10-year-old Anthony
leaned down to hug the mane of his horse and said, "mostly, my best
friend right here, Jack-Jack."
Campers also are learning more than just horsemanship. The camp, which includes
visits from park rangers and a three-day backcountry excursion through Henry
W. Coe State Park, gives the children a respect and understanding for nature,
said camp Chief Executive Officer Lon Davis, Teri Davis Patane's father,
who the children call "grandpa."
This can be a far cry from the circumstances of the child's day-to-day life.
Many of the children who have participated in the camp have parents who have
been drug users, criminals or absent for long periods of time. Some campers
are wards of the state. Their lives are filled with sadness, violence and
uncertainty, said camp director and "surrogate grandma" Kristine
Scopazzi, friend of Teri Davis Patane.
"They will tell you horrifying stories," she said.
In one encounter, a student noticed an eight-inch scar that runs from Scopazzi's
left shoulder blade to her collarbone.
"Did your husband do that?" she said the boy asked.
"No. I had surgery," she said she replied.
"Because he cut you with a knife?" she said he asked.
It took several more exchanges before Scopazzi could convince him that nobody
had stabbed anybody and that it was a planned, nonviolent procedure.
Encounters like these make the dozen volunteers, primarily relatives and
friends of the Davis and Patane families, consider expanding the program.
Currently, the camp receives about 15 applications for six spots, and only
advertises through word of mouth with local agencies.
The issue is less one of cost - local companies and individuals cover the
$7,000 annual cost of the program - but one of time. The volunteers already
take a week of vacation to staff the camp and would have to take another
week if they added a second camp of six children.
Regardless of what volunteers plan for 2008, the mission remains a positive
one, said Carmen Patane.
"It'd be nice if we could do this 100 times a year," he said. "You
hear these stories about these kids and it's just fuel for the tank. These
kids are really worth the hard work."
$20.00 feeds 1 horse for a week
$40.00 buys a helmet for a child
$100.00 shoes a horse for 8 weeks
$250.00 buys a used youth saddle
$500.00 buys hay for 6 horses for 1 months
$1,300.00 sends one kid to camp