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Magic Beans therapy horses caught in insurance snag in Pinellas

Magic Beans Village Foundation volunteer Victoria Santoleri, 16, looks into Buster Brown’s empty stall. “I miss Buster so much,” she says. Because of insurance issues, the Magic Beans had to relocate Buster and other horses its clients ride. Recently, a donor stepped forward and paid the insurance.

JIM DAMASKE | Times

Magic Beans Village Foundation volunteer Victoria Santoleri, 16, looks into Buster Brown’s empty stall. “I miss Buster so much,” she says. Because of insurance issues, the Magic Beans had to relocate Buster and other horses its clients ride. Recently, a donor stepped forward and paid the insurance.

SAFETY HARBOR — The barn is empty, the hay goes uneaten and the saddles hang unused on a rack.

Cajun, Darwin, Buddy and little Peppercorn are gone.

The horses were moved from their Folly Farms home to a different stable when it was determined in December that the Magic Beans Village Foundation that owns them didn't have the correct insurance policy for its therapeutic riding program and didn't have enough money to buy one.

A donor stepped up recently and paid the nonprofit's $4,000 insurance bill to keep the program alive for the 47 disabled youth and adults it helps.

But then George Weiss, who owns the property and barn Magic Beans leases, discovered he didn't have the right type of coverage, either.

Weiss, who leases his tree-shaded 7-acre property on Martin Luther King Jr. Street N to Magic Beans for $1 a year, hopes to get his insurance issues cleared up and the horses back, probably sometime this week.

It has been a tense time for the struggling organization, and members of the board of directors will be happy to put the tough times behind them.

Magic Beans was founded five years ago by Gena Hayes, a physical therapist assistant from Largo, along with Sukhmeet Kaur of St. Petersburg and Daina Graziunas of Clearwater to provide therapeutic activities for people with such conditions as autism, spina bifida, cerebral palsy, muscular dystrophy, multiple sclerosis and head trauma.

Magic Beans offers arts and crafts, cooking classes, computer lessons, photography, a music course and a social club. The riding program was started last year.

The foundation is governed by a seven-member board of directors: John Piazza of Seminole, Carl Lavender of St. Petersburg, Hayes, Janice Mason of Safety Harbor, Michelle Gordon of Dunedin, Kaur and Chuck Philips of Safety Harbor.

Richard Hayes, Gena Hayes' husband, runs the barn with help from Lonnie Fulton, a volunteer, and assists with every other program.

Magic Beans' operating budget is $60,000 a year with no paid workers, but the goal is to raise $200,000 a year, so salaries could be provided and all programs could be provided full time. Besides more donations, it also needs a volunteer grant writer and therapist.

While the stable is off McMullen-Booth Road, its classrooms and office are in a building in the downtown area.

But "the horses do more for them than anything else,'' Hayes said.

Clients who are not on scholarship pay $7 per class and $15 for riding sessions.

Sybil Bailey's son, Scott Bailey, 36, enjoys the activities it provides, and has almost mastered the art of horseback riding.

"There are many programs for low-functioning individuals, many of whom need diapering, but not for high-functioning people,'' Bailey said.

Magic Beans fills that gap, she said.

Over the past few months, however, the organization was struggling so much, it had to give away two of its horses. There was just not enough money to feed and care for six horses. Both went to good homes, Hayes said.

In the future, Hayes said she hopes to offer services to people 3 years old and up. Keeping the riding program operational is key to the success of Magic Beans, board members say.

"It helps improve neurological and muscular function and communication skills,'' Philips said.

Especially popular with clients and volunteers is the 16-year-old miniature horse named Peppercorn.

"She steals everyone's heart,'' said Mason. "She follows Cajun, her best friend, like a puppy.''

She is perfect for children and adults in wheelchairs, Hayes said, because she is close to the ground.

"The kids fight to walk her and groom her,'' Hayes said.

She said volunteers from the Alonso High School agricultural program in Tampa groom her every two weeks, and when they do, "she comes out with different color hair bows and ribbons.''

Of course, they also love to care for the other horses: Buddy, a 21-year-old ex-barrel racer; Cajun, 19, who was donated by a teacher at Alonso High along with Peppercorn; Darwin, a big thoroughbred who was rejected as a racer for being a slow poke. His age could not be confirmed.

When or if the economy gets better, Magic Beans plans to get more horses.

"We can't fail,'' Hayes said. "There's too much love in this program. God wants this.''

Eileen Schulte can be reached at schulte@sptimes.com or (727) 445-4153.

FYI

How to help

If you would like to donate money to Magic Beans or become a volunteer, call Kathy Starke-Nalbach at (727) 328-1441.

Magic Beans therapy horses caught in insurance snag in Pinellas 02/10/09 [Last modified: Tuesday, February 10, 2009 9:59pm]
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