Team effort makes LifeStriders a success

Sarah Knowles
Matthew Knowles, 13, takes part in a therapeutic ride at the LifeStriders facility in the Town of Delafield, with the assistance of Luis Lizardi (left), Melissa Smith and Lori Voecks (right). Matthew has been going to LifeStriders for eight years.
Published on: 6/25/2013

Veronica Sosa Agnoli has seen many powerful images in her life through her work, but this one she said will be with her forever.

It was a blustery day in April and she had just walked into a room where she saw the more than 100 runners wearing bright red LifeStriders shirts.

"It was a very powerful moment and one I won't forget," said Sosa Agnoli, executive director of LifeStriders, the therapeutic riding center in the Town of Delafield, S11 W29667 Summit Ave.

She became so emotional because they were all here for a common cause: to help an organization that she runs prosper by getting ready to run, while being linked together, a half marathon as part of the annual Waukesha Trailbreaker.

By being tied together, the runners were looking to set a Guinness Book of World Record for "The Most Runners Linked Together to Complete a Half Marathon."

But more importantly, these runners also raised $25,000 for LifeStriders, a nonprofit she started with her husband nine years ago so children and adults with special needs or those needing to work on social skills could improve physically and mentally through equine-assisted therapy.

"They were doing this in the cold and were tethered up and it was touching to see they were doing this for our kids and families we serve," said Sosa Agnoli, adding the half-marathon run was Lifestriders' most successful fundraiser. "Plus, a lot of the people were not affiliated with LifeStriders.

"They just heard about what we were doing and wanted to help out, so that was incredible."

On Tuesday, June 25 it became official when City of Waukesha Mayor Jeff Scrima, who also ran the half marathon, presented the world record certificate to LifeStriders' representatives and volunteers.

Needing each other

LifeStriders clients rely on the assistance of these volunteers when riding a horse and the runners relied on each other because if the group became disconnected from one another during the 13.1-mile run, no record would have been attained.

"The families we serve and the outpouring of support we receive from volunteers and everyone who participated shows that caring must come with action and that healing begins for us all when we connect," Sosa Agnoli said. "The symbolism of having individuals linked together, taking steps to help people with special needs make their own personal strides, is representative of LifeStriders' mission and the challenges that our families face."

She has seen what these families experience since becoming familiar with therapeutic riding, which uses forms of cognitive behavior therapy as well as physical and occupational therapy to meet the needs of the clients.

Depending on the season, Sosa Agnoli said LifeStriders serves about 80 to 100 clients in its therapeutic program, and building an indoor arena has allowed them to use the facility all year.

It also serves about 15 clients a week in its social skills program, which focuses on children and teenagers who have difficulty sustaining social connections. She said this program is about to double in size but is always looking for volunteers.

Coming to Wisconsin

Sosa Agnoli, born in Argentina, is a bilingual school psychologist and counselor by trade. When she met her husband, Rob Conley, in Los Angeles a number of years ago while working with inner city families, he introduced her to therapeutic riding.

He had learned about this while training to become a physical therapist. Sosa Agnoli applied the therapeutic riding on at-risk youth and saw positive results.

With Rob's family in Oconomowoc, Sosa Agnoli and Rob moved to southeastern Wisconsin from California in 2004 and founded LifeStriders.

"It's been incredible and touching for us," Sosa Agnoli said. "When we started Rob and I purchased the first farm and lived there (W288 S290 Elmhurst Drive, Town of Delafield). But when we moved here (to its new location in 2011) it's been amazing for our program and amazing to see it continue to grow.

"We have amazing volunteers and the programs wouldn't exist without them. And we've gotten the financial support. We've been fortunate and hope it continues."

Fundraisers like the half marathon certainly help with keeping riding sessions free for veterans and at $30 for families struggling financially, but Sosa Agnoli said with an hour riding session up to $90 it can be a challenge for most.

As a result, the organization will hold another fundraiser — this time a 5K race on its 23-acre property — Oct. 13.

Positive results

Sosa Agnoli, certified by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, said the goal of the therapeutic sessions are to stimulate the brain in a different way every time as it serves individuals with autism, ADHD, social anxiety, physical and cognitive disabilities and those with poor self esteem.

"Everyone is so unique," Sosa Agnoli said. "It can be a full-circle experience. (The clients) learn how to communicate with the horses and that's very powerful for them. They get a deeper sense of themselves, make friends with volunteers and it's a place where kids can connect and have very lasting friendships."

And she's seen and heard the impact LifeStriders can have on a family.

"For one child who was non-verbal their first words were while they were riding," Sosa Agnoli said. "That can be very powerful for the parents."

Helping families

It sure has been for Sarah Knowles of Brookfield, whose son, Matthew, has been going to LifeStriders since 2005.

Matthew was born with a chromosome abnormality and despite being 13 years old, Sarah says he has the cognitive development of a 1 year old. He's confined to a wheelchair, does not talk or walk without assistance and can't feed or dress himself.

However, when he's on a horse at LifeStriders a change occurs.

"Put him on a horse and he comes to life," Knowles said. "His physical disabilities are less apparent. He makes a lot of laughs, moves around a lot, smiles, bounces around and can move forward and side to side."

It's been a process, though.

"When we first started going to LifeStriders he didn't have eye contact and wasn't very interested in what was going on and didn't have a lot of strength," Knowles said. "Since then, he's so much stronger and more interacted with people who are there and is aware of his surroundings."

As a result of his increased core strength and the ability to maintain balance (before his legs would just collapse, Knowles said) it has allowed Sarah and her husband to care for Matthew at their home, rather than in a residential care.

"It's been a huge difference to where he started to where he is now," said Knowles, who moved with her family from England to Wisconsin about 10 years ago and could not thank Sosa Agnoli and her team more.

Running for a cause

And to show how much LifeStriders has meant to her, she was one of the 103 who ran in the half marathon.

"I had never run in a half marathon before. I thought I better do it because it's raising money for LifeStriders," Knowles said.

Scrima echoed her thoughts saying "the impact that LifeStriders has on those with special needs is incredible and it was a privilege to run with the team."

It's this team that has made LifeStriders so special to so many people, Sosa Agnoli said.

"This was our vision," she said. "And it's been amazing."