Equines Assisting Special Individuals (EASI) is now a program of Northwest Alabama Mental Health Center (NWAMHC).The merger, which became official on Oct. 1, 2018, is a first for the state, according …
Equines Assisting Special Individuals (EASI) is now a program of Northwest Alabama Mental Health Center (NWAMHC).
The merger, which became official on Oct. 1, 2018, is a first for the state, according to NWAMHC executive director Dr. Dale Cottle, and he is hopeful that it will be a model for other mental health centers.
"It provides a new type of therapy that we weren't able to do before. One of the things that has struck me in the many years of being in the business is that so many of the chronically mentally ill people that we see have never been exposed to anything. Some of them have never even see a horse," Cottle said.
One long-term goal is to establish a program in each of the four other counties served by NWAMHC — Winston, Fayette, Lamar and Marion. Until then, EASI will serve clients from all counties in the coverage area.
EASI, which has been an accredited Professional Association of Therapeutic Horsemanship (PATH) International center for over a decade, will retain that accreditation.
"There are other PATH centers in Alabama that work with individual doctors or psychiatrists. We are the first to work with a system, so both sides are breaking new ground with this endeavor. We're excited about it," said former EASI executive director Christie Stanley, who is now the coordinator of the program.
The merger with NWAMHC provided financial resources that EASI needed in order to continue to operate and also allowed the program to expand its reach.
"It opens the door for us to serve so many more in the community. We're touching a population now that EASI had never really tapped into," Stanley said.
EASI was established as a nonprofit in July 2005 and offered its first therapeutic riding lessons in 2006.
Individuals with physical and developmental disabilities have always been its primary client base. The program will continue to serve those individuals but will also welcome adults and children diagnosed with serious mental illnesses or emotional disturbances.
"They may be hospitalized in psychiatric units or a state institution. They may live in one of our group homes or live in our supervised apartments. They may be adults with substance abuse issues or children who attend our day treatment program. They are diagnoses of attention deficit disorder, schizophrenia, major depression or mood disorders in general," Pollyanna Higgs, NWAMHC children's services director for Walker, Marion and Winston counties, said of the new clients who will be served by EASI.
EASI is currently serving approximately 45 NWAMHC clients each week, according to Stanley. Once school groups return, EASI will be serving between 80 and 90 clients a week.
EASI will continue to be open five days a week for lessons, with most being handled in a group setting. EASI's services include group therapy and lessons in basic living skills such as communication, stress management, personal hygiene and community awareness.
EASI's four therapeutic riding instructors, who are certified through PATH International, will remain with the program and will continue to receive 30 hours of training a year through PATH as well as 30-40 hours of additional annual training for NWAMHC.
A master's level therapist has also been added to the staff to provide individual, family and group counseling. Additional staff may be added as services increase.
For the first time in its history, EASI will be compensated by billing the insurance provider of clients whose plans cover individual or family therapy for mental health services.
Previously, lessons were either covered by private donations or grants.
Individuals whose insurance does not cover the therapy will continue to pay $25 per lesson, and school groups will pay a $7 per child field trip fee.
EASI will still accept donations to cover the cost associated with these lessons as well as annual sponsorships to cover the cost of feed, vet fees and other expenses associated with taking care of the program's eight therapy horses.
Though EASI's former nonprofit status has been dissolved, the program will continue to be eligible to apply for grants because it now falls under NWAMHC's public nonprofit status.
EASI is now operated by the NWAMHC board of directors rather than its own board of directors. Former EASI board members will continue to be advocates of the program.
"There are some past EASI board members who are heartfelt about this program and are active in this community who will still be soliciting resources because they love the program, and we welcome their involvement," Higgs said.
The merger has also resulted in EASI raising the age of eligibility for volunteers from 14 to at least 18.
Opportunities for younger volunteers will be available on a limited basis and will have to be scheduled in advance.