Hope and Healing on Four Legs

By Leslie Moore

Hope and Healing on Four Legs

For most of us, our experience with animals is limited to our beloved four-legged companions – cats, dogs and maybe horses – who provide us with love, loyalty and unconditional love, enriching our lives in immeasurable ways. However, our animal friends provide so much more for people who are disabled, traumatized and abused, and this month Sasee visited with two organizations that put animals and people together in miraculous ways.

Matt Burgess: Freedom Fidos

Noah, Nick Mateo, Matt Burgess, Brinks, Bronson, and Austim Shenyo

Noah, Nick Mateo, Matt Burgess, Brinks, Bronson, and Austim Shenyo


“We’ve changed each other’s world,” said Freedom Fidos handler, Austin Shenyo matter-of-factly when I asked him about his relationship with his service dog, Bronson. A rising 7th grader, Austin’s friendly, outgoing personality belies the difficulties he’s faced in his young life. Before meeting Matt Burgess, founder of Freedom Fidos, Austin was struggling to keep up his grades and control the behavior resulting from a traumatic brain injury he suffered after being abused as a young child. Bronson, a gorgeous, long-haired German shepherd, was also the victim of abuse before being rescued by Matt and trained as a service dog. “Bronson nudges me when I lose focus,” Austin began. “And, when I’m sad or upset, he knows and stays close to me. He helps me a lot.” Austin also has orthopedic issues as a result of his injuries, and the large dog is able to keep Austin steady when he stumbles, preventing him from falling. During our interview, Bronson, along with the other service dogs, never took his eyes off of his handler – these highly trained dogs monitor every move.

“Austin and Bronson bonded almost immediately,” Matt told me. “I knew this was going to be a good match.” Austin is one of 20 “handlers,” the term used for people with service dogs, placed by Matt in the last year and a half since founding the non-profit. Freedom Fidos provides task-trained, no cost service dogs to individuals challenged with physical and cognitive impairments. Most dogs are rescued from local shelters, and Matt is an expert in selecting dogs with the right temperament for this demanding job. “When I go into a shelter, I bounce a tennis ball – dogs that stay focused on the ball, no matter how long I bounce it, are the ones who make good service dogs. Service dogs must also be very task oriented, calm and non-reactive.” Freedom Fidos’ dogs are trained by Matt and other professional dog trainers who volunteer their services. Shock collars or other painful training techniques are never used. Service dogs are legally allowed to accompany their handlers anywhere, providing emotional and physical support.

Nick Mateo, another Freedom Fidos handler, was in the Army for ten years and deployed three times to Iraq. Injured in mortar blasts, Nick spent a year in Walter Reid Hospital before being released and was subsequently given a medical discharge from the service. His injuries left him permanently disabled and unable to work. “Before I got Noah [Nick’s service dog] I couldn’t leave the house. I was diagnosed with PTSD and have severe anxiety – I couldn’t even stand in line at the grocery store because I didn’t like people being behind me.”

While Nick and I were talking, Noah became aware of his master’s rising anxiety and put his paws on Nick and bumped him repeatedly to calm him down. “Noah knows when I’m getting anxious, sometimes before I do,” Nick told me. “Now, when I’m standing in line, Noah watches behind me, and I am able to stay relaxed. He reminds me to take my medicine, watches my CPAP machine at night in case I stop breathing and even knows how to push a 911 button.”

Matt understands the struggles his handlers face because, he, too, served in the Army and was injured by mortar blasts that left him with a traumatic brain injury. He also had a severe reaction to the anthrax vaccine that has had lasting effects on his health, including debilitating migraines and heart and lung problems. His service dog, Brinks, enables him to not just function, but to excel. “Brinks actually saved my life. Last year, I was working outside my home and a board hit me, knocking me unconscious. This is very dangerous for someone with a brain injury. Brinks brought my cell phone, put it on my chest and then alerted a neighbor who called 911.”

Growing up in a “Brady Bunch” type home, with eleven children, Matt, surprisingly, never had a dog growing up. “My dad liked cats, but I got a dog as soon as I left home,” Matt laughed. After Matt came home from his last tour in Iraq, his dog, Frosty, passed away at 15. “I went to the shelter and brought home Brinks. It was instant communication and love. But, he was a crazy puppy, and I had to train him. Because of Brinks, I learned to train dogs and found I was pretty good at it.” Through the training of the trainer, the idea for Freedom Fidos was born.

Today, Freedom Fidos has a volunteer board of directors, 20 handlers and a waiting list of 70 people in need of a service dog. When asked how we can help, Matt told me that volunteer positions are available. Dogs in training need to practice being in all situations, and volunteers take them shopping, out to eat and to routine appointments. Donations toward the organization’s first free standing facility are also appreciated. “Once we purchase a facility, we will dramatically decrease the number of people waiting for a service dog.”

Matt is passionate about the organization’s mission and growth, saying, “I feel that the incredibly satisfying mission of Freedom Fidos is a perfect trifecta in that we get to rescue dogs, help veterans and special needs children with the support of the community. If we empower just one individual to have the quality of life they once had, or maybe are experiencing for the first time, not only have we accomplished our goal, but we also experience a transformation into a deeper level of understanding our fellow humans.”

For more information about Freedom Fidos or to find out how to help, visit www.freedomfidos.org.

Penny Lopez: Barnabas Horse Founda

Penny Lopez, Princess Sassy, Charlie McKinney, Seth McKinney

Penny Lopez, Princess Sassy, Charlie McKinney, Seth McKinney


“One in three girls and one in four boys will be sexually assaulted by the age of 18,” said Penny Lopez, Equine Specialist with Barnabas Horse Foundation, an all volunteer nonprofit developed to encourage hope and healing through fellowship with horses. After the Murrells Inlet resident retired from a 44 year banking career, she began using her lifelong love of horse to help local residents working to overcome the traumatic effects of abuse, rape and PTSD. “Barnabas Horse Foundation was founded in 2011, as the result of a child abuse case and our Director Sue McKinney’s interest in the growing progress with equine assisted therapy programs.”

“Horses respond to trauma,” Sue said when I asked about equine assisted therapy. “When our clients work with the horses, they learn new ways of responding.” Sue knows this well, as she was the victim of abuse at 4 years old. Today, this mother of five works tirelessly helping others gain the confidence to rebuild their lives after devastating trauma – and doesn’t even take a salary.

“Clients are referred by their therapist,” began Sue. “And, the therapist accompanies them to the equine therapy sessions. First, the client chooses a horse, and sometimes this takes a while. Most are frightened in the beginning, but eventually something clicks and a bond is formed between human and horse. That’s when the healing begins.” Therapy sessions include Equine Specialists like Penny, the therapist, the client and the horse. The client first learns to groom her horse and eventually is able to ride, assisted by the Equine Therapist. The clients learn “rhythmic riding,” done bareback to enhance the physical connection, and are asked to match their breathing to the horses’. The day Sasee visited, Sue led a mock therapy session with her sons, Charlie and Seth, to give us an idea of the process. Penny stood holding the horse’s head while Sue, posing as the therapist, guided Charlie through a series of exercises to encourage trust and mindfulness. The horse, Princess Sassy, was as gentle as a puppy with Charlie and appeared to enjoy the session.

I asked Penny to share one of her favorite success stories:

We had four women from the Rape Crisis Center come to the farm and asked them to walk around and “choose” a horse that they would like to work with. None of them would come within fifty feet of the horses. There was one woman who was clearly fearful, not speaking a word, with her hands deep in her pockets. After 45 minutes, she still would not go near any of the horses. Then, all of a sudden, Charlie, a 1600 pound draft horse, blind in one eye with 30 years of varied history, walked up to her, put his head down for her to touch and showed her that he trusted her. The next week, our client, with a big smile, was leading Charlie around and grooming him. Not only had he gained her trust, she had gained his. Her progress continues, and she is now in a loving relationship.

Penny also shared a wonderful story of a frightened child with extreme anxiety issues who chose the largest horse on the farm and has since made amazing progress. She now rides the huge horse with ease, and her parents report that her anxiety has greatly decreased at home. Horses are natural “therapists.”

The organization’s horses are magnificent, and I was thrilled to be able to interact with several while we visited. These gentle creatures seemed to know I was friendly, if untrained, and allowed me to come close and rub their beautiful coats. Barnabas Horse Foundation has horses of all sizes from a large draft horse, Tobie, to a family of miniature horses. All horses are donated and come from a variety of situations. “Horses do not ask or expect anything from us,” Penny told me. “They just want to feel safe and get along. They have an extraordinary ability to read the body language of other horses and humans. You may think you’re acting normal, but if you are angry, impatient or stressed, your horse will know it. The therapists use the horse’s reaction to their clients interactions to surface feelings that otherwise might not come out.”

Penny has loved horses all of her life. The daughter of an Army officer, she moved around a lot growing up, living all over the United States, and in Ethiopia and Japan. She and her husband, John, have lived in Wachesaw Plantation since 1989 and have one son who lives in Los Angeles. It wasn’t until the age of 40 that Penny was finally able to realize her dream of having her own horse. “Since then, I’ve owned four horses and currently have a four year old American Quarter Horse mare. I enjoy training and trail riding with my horse friends.”

Penny has been active with Barnabas Horse Foundation since 2014, working two days a week not only helping clients, but mucking stalls, grooming horses, digging post holes for fencing, mowing fields, feeding horses and helping with fundraising events. This organization is her passion.

“No one is born emotionally wounded,” Penny began. “There is wide proof that horses help humans heal. The therapy at Barnabas Horse Foundation is free of charge. We currently work with abused and traumatized children, women in crisis and veterans. The foundation is run by volunteers and everything is donated. We survive on donations, fundraisers and grants. with all of the labor donated by our volunteers.”

Barnabas Horse Foundation is currently accepting new volunteers for a variety of positions. Donations are greatly appreciated! Supporters may also adopt a horse, donate farm equipment or help with fundraisers. To find out more, contact Sue or Penny at 843-241-3331 or visit www.barnabashorse.org.

About this writer

  • Leslie Moore Leslie Moore is the editor for Strand Media Group. A 25 year resident of Pawleys Island, she is blessed with a life filled with the love of family and friends and satisfying work to do every day.

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