Lauren Pedeliski is upfront. She knows many kids go through less-than-ideal childhoods. But while she doesn’t like to dwell on her past, she likely has experienced more trauma than most – abuse that led to anger, self-harm and suicidal thoughts.
“I guess I can say I went through kind of a crappy childhood,” says Lauren, 14.
Lauren stands next to Giselle, a gentle horse with a rich brown coat and a floppy mane, as she recounts how she ended up at Corral Riding Academy, a program that she says saved her life. With Lauren’s glittery eye shadow and upbeat personality, it’s hard to imagine the despair she felt when she arrived at the horse farm on Kildaire Farm Road.
She speaks profoundly, though, and with excitement, about the healing powers of the rescue horses she’s worked with and why her outlook on life has completely changed. It’s remarkable that pairing a girl, one who has struggled in life, with a rescue horse can transform them both.
“I feel like Giselle is a role model in my life, to be honest,” she says of the horse who came to Corral pregnant and angry. “We’re both still alive. I feel like she kind of reflects survival and making it through and not just giving up.”
Corral Riding Academy isn’t giving up, either, as it tries to raise $1 million by June to allow it to stay at its peaceful home in the southern part of Cary. The Christian nonprofit has been there since founder and president Joy Currey and her husband, Robert, started it on her family’s 50-acre property south of Ten-Ten Road in 2008.
But her father, Thad Busbice, 83, has been a farmer all his life and is ready to retire. His daughter has been given the first shot at buying the property that she’s been renting – about 10 acres – near where her parents still live. The fundraising recently hit a critical half-million mark.
Currey said her father has no plans and no desire to sell it to developers, although they’re eagerly circling.
Currey said she never thought it would be possible to keep Corral there when it first started. That changed when the community invested $500,000 and countless volunteer hours to help the farm and its participants flourish.
About 120 girls have gone through the program, with 80 percent of them having experienced trauma, neglect and abuse. They’ve left with better grades, higher self-esteem and healthier relationships with others. All go to college, with many earning scholarships.
Currey, 35, is passionate about keeping Corral at its current site to help even more girls like Lauren. She wants the location to remain accessible to those who need it, she said, and so the community can continue to play an active role in its success.
“It would be quite a lost asset,” she said. “Not only that, it would put us back several years of momentum if we had to go out and find another farm and rebuild all of this.”
Currey grew up in the 1800s farmhouse on the property with her four older siblings before her father built a larger two-story house nearby. She remembers the property being surrounded by farms. Now, it’s surrounded by subdivisions.
Financial contributions have enabled Corral to build an arena for the girls to practice their riding. Storr Office Environments and other donors funded the overhaul of the farmhouse, Currey’s first home, which had fallen into disrepair. Now it’s a professional office, kitchen and tutoring spot where the girls gather for afternoon snacks, Saturday meals and group discussions.
“What I do love about that story and so many others around this farm is, it is a story of redemption,” she said. “That old farmhouse should have been bulldozed over and was as broken as a house could be. ... It’s that rebirth we see across the board here with the girls, here with the horses and with the farm.”
Currey, a Broughton High School graduate, set out to be a teacher. After graduating from UNC-Chapel Hill in 2002, she taught in Philadelphia through the Teach for America program. She earned a master’s degree in education at Columbia University and was part of a team that started a charter school. She aspired to become a principal in Brooklyn, hoping to contribute to the education reform movement.
But she moved back to North Carolina in 2007 when her husband got a job here, so she began looking for ways to serve underprivileged children. With her background in horses, Corral was born.
Corral serves girls 11 to 18 years old who are referred by school personnel, mental health providers, the court system and law enforcement. The girls find Corral is a safe haven and a second home, where they receive tutoring, mentoring, vocational training, horseback riding lessons and therapy. About 20 girls – referred to as “the herd” – are in the riding academy, while 40 to 50 take part in outpatient therapy.
Girls in the riding academy come to Corral on an assigned day during the week. Saturday, they come together to work on the farm. They learn to establish the healthy relationships that so many lacked when they first started the program.
Enrollment is free. Half of the funding comes from individual donors, and half comes from foundations and grants, including from the N.C. Juvenile Crime Prevention Council.
Breaking the cycle
As for the 10 horses on the farm, like the girls, they’ve come to Corral in a poor state. They’ve been beaten or abandoned. They certainly don’t want to be mounted for riding.
But the girls and the horses soon figure out they can learn a lot about each other.
Kaitlyn Beasley, 15, has noticed a difference in her and her horse’s behavior in the few months she has been at Corral. Before, she was shy and made sure her interactions with others, and even her family, were brief. She sat by herself at lunch and bristled when others made fun of her taste in music.
Those feelings have changed. When we met, she was talkative with a dry sense of humor. She says working with Bentley, her assigned horse, has opened her up.
Like her, Bentley was new to the herd and didn’t get along with other horses at first. Slowly, Bentley and Kaitlyn began to feel each other out, sensing when one needed space or when energy levels were too high. Now Bentley is a leader of the herd, and Kaitlyn is befriending new students at school and is surrounded by people in the cafeteria.
“If he can do that, I can be a better me,” said Kaitlyn, a 10th-grader at Middle Creek High School.
Both Lauren and Kaitlyn, who have raised their low grades to A’s and B’s, have big dreams. Kaitlyn, a musician, wants to study English in college so she can perfect her songwriting skills for the band she hopes to form. Lauren, a ninth-grader at Southern Wake Academy, wants to go to N.C. State so she can be an equine scientist and work with rescue horses.
“There’s so many things I want to experience,” Lauren said.
Camille Brown, the program manager, said that’s the kind of long-lasting impact Corral wants to have on its participants.
“They often come from a cycle of poverty, a cycle of abuse. To help them break out of that and start a new cycle, is like ...,” Brown pauses. “I’m just getting goose bumps. It’s one of the coolest things in the world.”
▪ Visit corralriding.org or call 919-355-2090 to learn more about the program and to donate. An anonymous donor will match contributions from new donors through Dec. 31. A “Breakfast on the Farm” fundraiser is Nov. 21 from 9 to 10:30 a.m.
▪ Moving Visions Entertainment is creating a film, “Unbridled,” inspired by Corral Riding Academy. The movie will be filmed at Corral and will star the farm’s horses. It’s expected to be done in 2016.