Compassion and empathy are two important character traits for Willowcreek Middle School teacher and instructional coach Debra Ekdahl, and she strives to teach these every day. Her inspiration for focusing on these characteristics to enhance her students' social and emotional health came from an unlikely source: Mrs. Ekdahl has been training horses for 40 years and sees the power of equine-facilitated therapies in helping humans cope with difficult or traumatic events.
This connection caught the attention of the prestigious Lilly Endowment Teacher Creativity Fellowship Program, and, thanks to a generous grant from the endowment, Mrs. Ekdahl will spend two weeks this summer volunteering with two ranches in Georgia and Kentucky to renew to her knowledge of equine-facilitated therapies.
The Teacher Creativity Fellowship Program funds grants for Indiana educators to be able to renew their commitment to teaching through creative summer projects that ultimately benefit their students. Just 103 projects were selected this year in Indiana.
During her trip, Mrs. Ekdahl will volunteer at Barefoot Ranch in Georgia and Reigns of Freedom in Kentucky. Both organizations rehabilitate horses who have been through traumatic events and use equine-facilitated therapies to help children and adults who are coping with trauma. While there, Mrs. Ekdahl will be grooming and feeding the horses, cleaning stalls, and assisting with therapy lessons.
Mrs. Ekdahl plans to share her experience with her colleagues at Willowcreek and use what she learned in the equine-facilitated therapy sessions to best teach her students compassion and empathy.
In her grant proposal, Mrs. Ekdahl said she is excited for the opportunity to renew and enhance her passion for teaching over the summer.
"Revitalization is important to me so I can inspire others to be a compassionate change in the world," she said.
Mrs. Ekdahl also recognized the importance of addressing students' social and emotional needs, especially following the COVID-19 pandemic. She hopes that her experiences this summer help her better address these needs in her students.
"Visiting the ranches will once again renew my understanding of the power of horses to help humans become more in tune with their emotions and heal from past traumas," she said. "In my alternative classroom, we practice mindful meditation every day. Equine-facilitated therapies focus on the shared consciousness of horse and rider or handler to expand awareness and establish a calm and relaxed feeling of safety."