September 30, 2014

Acts of Kindness

A few years ago, Tiffany Billings donated her beloved Appaloosa, Dottie, to the therapeutic riding program at the Naples Equestrian Challenge (NEC). The "horse-crazy" 12-year-old went a step further last year, when she and an NEC friend raised more than enough money to pay for Dottie's emergency surgery, which had cost the program almost $10,000. For her commitment to the program, and in recognition of her equestrian skills, Tiffany was named the 2004 Child Equestrian of the Year by the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association.

Tiffany, who was born with cerebral palsy, couldn't walk when she began riding six years ago. Horseback riding can help those with disabilities improve mobility, balance, muscle tone and more. Her first time on a horse, one person led the animal slowly around the yard while two others walked on either side. Today Tiffany rides independently and is learning dressage moves. "I like trotting best," she says. And thanks to therapy and corrective surgery, she now can walk, although with a limp. "We give a lot of the credit to the Naples Equestrian Challenge," says Tiffany's mother, Jane Billings.

About 78 disabled children and adults ride each week at the Naples Equestrian Challenge, which has stables off Goodlette-Frank Road. Almost 200 volunteers assist the program's six riding instructors and its president, Caroline Martino. There are six horses in the program including Dottie, who is still Tiffany's first choice for riding partner. In the summer, the center runs a camp that includes children who are not disabled. Tiffany, who attends the camp every year, will be a counselor-in-training this summer.

A friend of Jane and Ted Billings brought Tiffany to Naples from a Russian orphanage when she was three; three years later, when the friend died, the Billingses adopted the little girl. Although she knew little about children, Jane says, "It was the greatest thing that ever happened to us."

Jane had heard about the Naples Equestrian Challenge, then in its beginning stages, and was delighted when Tiffany took to it instantly-so much so that the family acquired Dottie shortly after.

But as Tiffany became more active, taking up gymnastics and chorus, and as her schoolwork became more demanding, Dottie was spending more time alone. Tiffany was also planning to undergo major surgery that would ultimately improve her walking but would put both legs in casts for six months. Well-trained and patient, Dottie needed more attention; and soon after her move to the Naples Equestrian Challenge, she became a major asset to the program. "She's one of those affectionate ones," Tiffany says.

In 2004, a bout with colic twisted Dottie's intestines. The surgery she needed had an 85-percent success rate but the $10,000 price tag was a challenge for the not-for-profit program. Still, "the board voted to throw ourselves into debt," Jane says.

As Dottie recovered, Tiffany had an idea. With her friend, fellow NEC rider Ryan Jordan, she decided to set up a lemonade stand at the center on a Saturday. The newspaper ran a story about the girls' plan, and the next day, a stream of customers showed up. Thirsty workers who were widening Goodlette-Frank Road donated $10 per refill; and other customers gave generously as well. "People were dropping in $100 bills," Jane remembers. At the end of the morning, a father with his young son pulled up in an SUV. Saying that it would mean a lot to his family to give something, he asked if he could write a check. The amount? $8,000. By the end of the day, they'd raised $12,000.

In November, the Billingses traveled to Kansas City for the national awards ceremony, where the honorees were chosen from more than 650 riding programs. In addition to Tiffany's national honor, Naples volunteer Todd Erickson was recognized as the region's volunteer of the year. NEC president Caroline Martino says this is the first time the local program has been honored. "Two in one year is really outstanding," she says.

Tiffany and Dottie will demonstrate dressage moves at the NEC's annual horse show this month. With the help of her instructor, Tiffany is training to compete regularly in such events. Her ultimate goal: a horse farm of her own.

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