- Associated Press - Sunday, October 1, 2017

HOUSTON (AP) - Coco Chanel is getting dressed for a date with someone very important. It’s been weeks since she’s seen him, so she’s getting her hair brushed and just the right getup on.

The Houston Chronicle reports this isn’t haute couture. Her toiletries and wardrobe are donated: Coco, as she’s known, is a homeless Hurricane Harvey refugee. The small Palomino horse is getting a pad strapped to her back for a ride with a 6-year-old with a type of muscular dystrophy.

Alexander Lowery is one of 95 children and six young adults with disabilities who ride with Special CHEERS (Children with Horses for Evaluation, Education, Rehabilitation and Socialization). At least, they did ride with Special CHEERS - until Harvey drowned the 240 acres of barns, trails, riding arenas and other areas the nonprofit leases from the Army Corps of Engineers in northwest Houston.

Now, like so many in our area, the group that provides therapeutic horseback riding and other animal therapy is essentially homeless and making do in temporary digs - in this case, the Great Southwest Equestrian Center in Katy.

“We lost all our saddles,” Special CHEERS founder Fritzi Glover-Strowmatt, an occupational therapist, says while she readies Coco, one of 16 horses that she evacuated ahead of the storm in borrowed trailers - two loads of horses and one of feed. Everything else that wasn’t taken was lost.

Well before Harvey struck, Special CHEERS was planning a 15th-anniversary gala to raise money to underwrite low-income riders (the group accepts private insurance and Medicaid); feed the horses, which costs $4,000 a month; and, ironically, replace a ramp and deck that were damaged in the 2016 Tax Day flood. That time, Special CHEERS’s site got 5 feet of water. With Harvey, it was more like 15.

The gala was scheduled for Sept. 30 with a theme “Stand by Me.”

“It’s our only fundraiser,” co-chair Lynn Kelly says.

Special CHEERS’s staff could use some low-key fun, according to fellow co-chair Loraine Lyons.

“They’re all unemployed,” Lyons says. “… We want to give everybody hope, to see that we’re (getting) back in business.”

In the meantime, businesses and foundations, including local Dover Saddlery and Scottsdale, Arizona-based Parelli Foundation, have given brushes, buckets, halters and more so that Special CHEERS can at least keep up “activities and daily living” instruction. These classes use animal grooming, for example, to address fine-motor skills and impart a sense of caretaking and responsibility.

But until the special saddles, safety belts, tack and other equipment that serve this population of riders are replaced, there are no scheduled riding classes. A few items are on their way.

Thanks to the equestrian center, Glover-Strowmatt was able to keep the Special CHEERS horses, mother-daughter goats Amy and Lolli and pot-bellied pig Glitzy together. Little Pennie, one of the therapy dogs, too (the rest are at Glover-Strowmatt’s house).

But it isn’t home. Home is gone.

When Glover-Strowmatt visited the Special CHEERS facility a couple of weeks ago, she retrieved some special pommels her riders grip in place of reins, knowing she could sanitize them. But the scene was bleak: black mold, caved-in roofing and an upended water well that will need to be redug if Special CHEERS returns. The group is looking around for a new location as well.

“I don’t know what our options are,” Glover-Strowmatt says. “What do you do when you only qualify for a low-interest loan?”

That’s the question she’s asking. The one she’s hearing from families: When are you coming back?

For children such as Alexander, equine therapy is not a luxury but a necessity.

“Come into my humble abode,” Glover-Strowmatt tells him as he enters an arena. Once a week for an hour, since just before he turned 3, the smiling, talkative boy has gotten out of a fire-engine-red, motorized wheelchair to tackle his spinal muscular atrophy.

First on Buddy, now on Coco, Alexander experiences the movement of the horse engaging his core, which should delay and lessen the scoliosis that’s coming, his mother, Maryann Lowery, explains.

“He knows it’s therapy, but it’s fun therapy,” she says as a small group watches her son ride.

“Watch, then wash Sancha,” says 19-year-old Zachary Lyons, who’s Loraine’s son and on the autism spectrum.

Sancha is a gray Percheron, a 2,500-pound draft horse that can accommodate adult riders. She, like, all Special CHEERS animals, is a rescue. Once a bag of bones, she’s put on 1,000 pounds since coming to the nonprofit in 2012. Clients respond to her love of water and enjoy giving her baths.

While Zachary hoses Sancha down, Glover-Strowmatt looks concerned after Alexander’s ride. As he spins his chair to get dizzy, she notes tension in his neck that wasn’t there pre-Harvey.

Earlier, she teared up describing the loss Special CHEERS has endured.

“I feel like I didn’t get enough done. Without the kids, there is no Special CHEERS. I live for the kids. They’re my divine purpose on Earth.”

For now, she and her daughter, Aurali Glover, 24, are doing their best to care for the animals, which are struggling to adjust to small stalls under fluorescent lights. Many used to lie down for an hour to rest their legs but can’t easily do so anymore.

“She’s used to grazing,” Glover-Strowmatt says, nodding to Coco. “Now she’s cooped up in jail.”

One of the goats has lost weight. Glitzy, the pig, out of her pen one day, headed toward an adjacent school when she heard little ones’ voices. She’s used to working with children.

It seems Glitzy, like Glover-Strowmatt, is itching to get back to work.

“We want to be a home of hope for children, for the medically fragile and with special needs,” Glover-Strowmatt says.

Now they just need a home.

___

Information from: Houston Chronicle, https://www.houstonchronicle.com

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