Local program receives national honor

Published 10:32 pm Monday, November 14, 2016

Debi Demick never thought her organization would be recognized on the national stage. However, it happened this year.

“It was surprising, because we tend to fly under the radar for our veterans,” Demick, co-founder and program director of Horses Helping Heroes Project.

Demick’s Smithfield-based initiative was a recipient of this year’s Spirit of Hope Award. The Navy nominated the program for the award. Demick has family ties to the military branch.

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Demick was shocked to hear her program would be honored. “That’s awesome. Do you have the right group?” she recalled asking.

“We know what we do is worthwhile,” said Lisa Jett, volunteer and member of the program’s board of directors. “To hear from the military we are doing a good thing, we were honored.”

The award was named in honor of legendary entertainer Bob Hope. The late comedian went on more than 50 war tours and entertained troops.

Each military branch selected a nominee for the award. The other nominees included country star and former “American Idol” contestant Kellie Pickler and her husband, Kyle Jacobs, and retired servicemen and women.

Beginning in 2010, the purpose of the Demicks’ program is to ease veterans’ post-traumatic stress and other conditions with the help of horses.

“We want them to regain their strength and confidence,” Jett said. “We accept them where they are and encourage them to move forward.”

The program, which is divided into eight-week sessions in the spring and fall, pairs veterans with horses, and together, the duos perform an array of activities. Participants engage in lectures, grooming, desensitizing and obstacle courses with their four-legged companions.

The program is offered at no cost to the veterans.

For more than 20 years, Demick has been involved with therapeutic horseback riding for children. However, she was inspired to provide the same service to veterans.

However, her program does not involve horseback riding. The activities are performed at ground level, so it is accessible to all veterans.

To date, the program has serviced more than 70 veterans, according to Jett.

“It’s an honor to work with these veterans,” Jett said.

She added some veterans have returned to the program to mentor new participants. Others have even served as spokespersons for the initiative.

“They appreciate being a part of the organization and not just a participant,” Jett said.

Demick has noted over the years the meal offered as part of the program has become “as important as their contact with the horses.”

During this time, veterans are able to socialize with one another and share war stories. This has helped foster a family environment, Demick said.

The initiative is often provided lunches by several restaurants in the area. Additionally, the funds allocated that aren’t used to purchase the lunches go toward the program’s Care Box Projects, which are tailored care packages, and other programs to benefit local servicemen and women.

“I’m hoping we’ve created a pay-it-forward thinking process for the veterans,” she said.

For more information about the Horses Helping Veterans Project, visit horseshelpingheroesproject.com/index.html.