By John Fulton
The Gospel message is spread in many ways in today’s society. Ministry is achieved through various outlets, traditional and contemporary: the Internet, music, local churches, outreach ministries, and more. The True Vine Equestrian Center (TVEC) in Lawton, is ministering in a unique way through equestrian training and camps that reach out to individuals with disabilities, and to the volunteers that help run the program.
Vicksburg resident Tina Brown took her daughter to TVEC for the first time this year. Jessica blossomed under this ministry; she was able to show a horse at the Van Buren Youth Fair this year. Brown said, “Jessica has really blossomed and become more independent, confident and outgoing in her relationships with others. TVEC has made Jessica a better person. True Vine has ‘the touch’ for kids and helps them grow.”
Vickie Nakamura’s love for Christ and horses led her to develop a program that reaches out to individuals in a manner that draws biblical contrasts between the Lord and his people, and the riders and their horses. Nakamura said, “Just as the Lord is our master and trainer, we are the master and trainer of the horse. If we obey the master, we are useful for his service, just as the horse that obeys its master is useful for service. Just like people who obey God, and horses that obey their master, grow in their abilities to service.”
The mission of TVEC is to please God, make disciples, and share Christ through horses, volunteering, fellowship, mentoring and encircling all in prayer. TVEC provides therapeutic horseback-back riding lessons and training. This unique ministry approach combines equine companionship and professionally designed riding programs for optimum physical, personal and spiritual growth.
As the participants learn riding skills, they also begin to grow in confidence, independence, social interaction and life skills. Once participants reach the age of 12, they can volunteer at TVEC. This is where they really begin to blossom and become leaders, as they, in turn, mentor younger participants.
Nakamura and other volunteers have plenty of opportunities to witness to participants. They pray with them. During lessons, they share Christian principles that apply to Christians and to the horses they ride and care for. The whole team – participants and volunteers – is involved in the care and feeding of horses.
Nakamura is the program director; she oversees 30 volunteers and expects over 125 participants this year. Mikayla Stafford is one of the volunteers. Stafford said, “I love to see the growth and changes in the participants, and I have grown in my walk with the Lord as a result of volunteering. I love to see how God moves through the horse rescue process.” This, she says, brings her great joy.
TVEC started in 2003 with a single idea and has blossomed into an organization that runs horse training camps from April through October. Volunteers take care of 18 horses throughout the year. The program serves individuals with disabilities, at risk youth, able-bodied people, and people with a community service obligation. There is a charge to participate, and a scholarship program to help persons who cannot afford the fee.
Faith Gunderson is another volunteer who started out as a participant, but now is serving others. She coordinates the volunteer program and the summer horse camp clinics. Gunderson explained, “I wanted to become involved because TVEC has been a place of healing and spiritual growth for me. I have grown as a result of the mentoring I received. Now I want to mentor and help others grow in their spiritual life, as well.”
Gunderson’s Sunday school teacher challenged her to pray about how to use the forty dollars she had been given. She rose to the challenge by starting a horse rescue program through TCEV in 2006. They rescue one horse a year at a cost of about $2000. This year a sponsor donated $2000, specifically to rescue a second horse.
Every year on Good Friday, the rescue team goes to the Kill Pen in Shipshewana, Indiana, to rescue a horse.
They pray in advance and develop a list of traits they would like to find in the rescued horse. Nakamura said, “God extends the invitation to accept Christ, but He doesn’t force us to do it; we have to choose. Just like God, we go to the Kill Pen and extend our hands and wait for a horse to choose to come to us; we don’t force them. God answers our prayers, meets our needs, and gives us the horse to rescue.”
The Horse Rescue Team uses the story of how these horses are in desperate need of saving, just as we are in need of saving from sin by accepting Jesus as our Savior. This comparison helps bring people into a closer relationship with God.
As TVEC grows, the staff plans to obtain a larger piece of property with an indoor riding center, so that this ministry can not only run all year long, but can also offer overnight camping facilities for participants. The staff believes this is God’s plan for them. They hope to find 50 acres close to their current location, 72861 28th Street near 72nd, in Van Buren County.
TVEC is funded primarily from an annual fundraising dinner, sponsored by the New Hope Fellowship Church and the Lawton Evangelical Mennonite Church. It will accept donations anytime. There is a small paid staff, but TVEC is a labor of love, not a love of money.
If you would like more information, call TVEC at 269-501-0529, or visit the Web site, www.truevineequestrian.org, to learn more about TVEC’s programs and volunteer opportunities.