- Associated Press - Friday, March 18, 2016

ENGLEWOOD, Fla. (AP) - Suzanne Park calls it her “come to Jesus” moment, that day during her freshman year of college when she collapsed in tears on the floor of her dorm room and asked the Lord to either make her dream come true or quash the passion for horses that had transfixed her for as long as she could remember.

“I said, ‘Either show me my mission or shelve it,” says the now 45-year-old Park, whose lush strawberry blonde ponytail, pulled through the back of her camo ballcap, glints gold as the sun sets on her humble but well-kept barn. “And for many years, I figured that’s what it would be - putting horses on the back burner.”

As a child, she’d channeled her horse obsession into whatever outlets she could find. The $30-an-hour lessons at a public stable near her family’s Englewood home. A school project where she could design the dream ranch she hoped to inhabit one day. The tag-along trips with a teacher equally enamored of equines who did “horse sitting” when people went out of town. Still, the dream of having a horse of her own remained as financially unfeasible as ever.

“I couldn’t just sit around waiting for a horse to ride,” says Park. “I had to get on with my life. So I said, ‘God, if you make this happen, I will make it happen for kids like me.’ Then I just put it away and moved on.”

She studied biology, worked for a small animal veterinarian and the Olive Garden restaurant chain. One day, sitting in the church where her cousin was a youth minister, she saw a “hot guy.” Paul Park wasn’t a horse person, but in just about every other way, he was perfect.

They married in 1993, started a family that would eventually grow to four children, joined her father’s landscaping business and bought a 1,200-square-foot home on a single lot down a rural Englewood road, backed by towering weeds. Not long after moving in, Park ambled into the backyard and through the foliage emerged a big beautiful bay quarterhorse. She looked up at the sky and said wryly: “God, that’s not funny.”

The people who owned the 10 acres behind her house had purchased the horse for their daughter, who’d later lost interest. They told Park she was welcome to spend as much time with “Jasmine” as she liked. She instantly made herself at home, in the saddle and at their small barn.

“I was super happy in that private horse world,” Park recalls. “But then God reminded me of my promise.”

A neighbor girl, 10 or 11, with red hair not unlike Park’s at her age, started jumping the fence. One day, the girl brought scissors and hacked off Jasmine’s mane and tail. Park got in her car and followed her home, livid. But when she pulled into the driveway, she burst into tears. It was her second “come to Jesus” moment.

“I realized it was time to fulfill my promise,” she says.

Instead of chewing the girl out, Park invited her to come over anytime. “We can learn together,” she said.

The girl came for a while, then disappeared. But not before she’d told her friends. That’s how Bit of Hope, Park’s hybrid horse rescue/youth ministry nonprofit began.

“The more kids that came, the more horses I got and the more horses I got, the more kids came,” Park says. “To be able to help the horses and the kids at the same time is beyond a blessing to me. It’s more than I ever hoped and dreamed for.”

These days, there’s a waiting list on both ends, with 16 horses vying for 14 stalls and as many as 30 kids brushing and cleaning and - with adult supervision - riding, every day but Tuesdays and Sundays, which Park reserves as family and church time. The horses come mostly from owners who are no longer able to care for them financially, or riders who haven’t been able to handle behavioral issues. The kids come by word of mouth or to fulfill community service requirements.

At a cost she estimates at $250 per animal/per month for food and supplies, Park rehabilitates the horses for eventual resale at market value, while providing free instruction and interaction for the horse-besotted but financially challenged. For the horses, the motto is “Rescue, Restore, Re-home.” For the kids it’s “Respect, Responsibility, Reward.” For both, the program is a lifesaver.

“How do I say this without sounding pretentious or arrogant?” says Park, who sounds anything but. “We’re such a precious commodity to young people in our area, who would otherwise have nothing but the city and the old folks. I know all the trouble I got into at their age and these kids are avoiding it by being here. And once a horse sets foot on this ranch, they are no longer rescues. We put an unspeakable amount of effort into making them valuable horses.”

But it’s an eternally precarious operation, one that survives on sporadic contributions, patched-up second-hand equipment and the occasional dip into Park’s savings. The Sarasota plastic surgeon who donates the acreage upon which the ranch is more than willing and “all about the kids,” Park says, but she knows it may not be so forever.

“I’m prepared to move the business, but not to give it up,” she says. “That would only happen with me kickin’ and screamin’.

“But it’s not for me that I do this,” she adds.

Her faith holds the reins.

“It’s his work, his mission. Will it end with me? I sure hope not.”

___

Information from: Sarasota (Fla.) Herald-Tribune, https://www.heraldtribune.com

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