RALEIGH — Having lost loved ones who were serving in the military, it was time Saturday for some of those families to be served in return.
For three hours, 18 children who have experienced the pain of losing a parent or guardian in the armed forces got a chance to be cowboys at the Hope Reins ranch in North Raleigh. Their parents got the chance to watch their children laugh and smile again.
“It’s an awesome experience for the kids to be around others who’ve experienced the same thing as them,” said parent Rachel Nolen of Parkton, near Fayetteville.
The six families present were from the Children of the Fallen program, which was established by The Army’s Army, a Fayetteville-based nonprofit that helps soldiers and their families. Sam’s Club of Fayetteville sponsored Saturday’s event at Hope Reins.
Located on Creedmoor Road near the 540 Loop, Hope Reins is a Christian ministry program that connects children who’ve experienced trauma with rescued horses. The nonprofit ranch often works with children who’ve experienced physical or sexual abuse.
But Kim Tschirret, founder and president of Hope Reins, said she knew it was their calling to also work with families who’ve lost loved ones in military service after she spoke with one mother who came to the ranch last year. Tschirret said the woman was crying because it was the first time in three years since her husband died in Afghanistan that she saw her children smiling and laughing as they interacted with the horses.
“It was a picture of hope for her that life will go on,” Tschirret said. “Things will get better.”
Nolen said it hasn’t been easy since her husband, James, was killed in Afghanistan in 2009. She was 4 1/2 months pregnant with their daughter, Jamie, whom she named after her husband. She came Saturday with now 3-year-old Jamie and 11-year-old William.
“She was our miracle,” Nolen said. “These two are amazing. They’ve helped me get through each day.”
On Saturday, Nolen’s two children joined the other kids in painting, petting and grooming the patient horses.
“The kids get hands-on here,” said Michelle Hookes of Greensboro, who brought her five children. “All these wonderful people are here to help them.”
Her fiance, Charles, was killed while on leave from Afghanistan in 2009.
It was the second time that Marie Goodman of Cary has brought her children to the ranch. She plans to return as often as she can. Her husband, Stephen, died in 2008 in a motorcycle accident in North Carolina shortly before his fourth deployment to Iraq.
“It’s a great experience to do some of these things here,” said Veronica Goodman, 13, Marie’s daughter. “It was fun.”
Hope Reins told the stories of horses such as Joey, an Appaloosa who went from qualifying for the Olympics to being found near death in a Virginia pasture. Although severe starvation left him permanently blind, volunteers said, Joey has otherwise recovered and become a symbol of hope for kids who face similar extraordinarily difficult circumstances in their lives.
The day ended with the families planting a flower and placing a rock with their deceased love one’s name on it in a memorial garden.
“It’s just been amazing for the kids,” Nolen said. “Hope Reins and The Army’s Army have done so much. We just can’t thank them enough.”