At age 11, Rebecca Stokes was already being introduced to the harmful effects of drugs and alcohol. Her boyfriend smoked and got drugs from his mother, and her friends were involved in similar activities. Now, at 17, Rebecca has left that all behind her to pursue a more fulfilling pastime -- caring for her very own horse, Shai Patchie. It's been a positive change that both she and her mother, Vicki, credit to Rebecca's six years of involvement with Changing Our Lives Together (COLT), a youth program dedicated to providing at-risk teens with a safe environment and positive alternative to drugs and gangs.
"If I never started COLT, I might be one of those statistics about the kids dying from drugs or suicide," she said during a speech at benefit dinner for COLT in February. "But ... thanks to COLT, I am now really into horses, and I even have one of my own."
COLT is a nonprofit organization that combines life skills workshops and equine therapy to steer kids away from drugs and violence. Each year, the program begins when students attend 20 weeks' worth of workshops in which they learn all about horses. Each horse lesson in Phase I is tied into a lesson on life skills to help students in handling the pressures of teenage life.
For example, "when you're working with a horse, you learn to be assertive and not to be a pushover," says Sarah, 16, a COLT member.
If students earn enough points to graduate, they go on to Phase II, which takes place during the summer at Program Director Sara Lesher's Greenacres stables. Once a week, students come out to work hands-on with horses. They start by learning to care for them and work their way up to learning to ride.
During Phase III, students focus on giving back through community service projects like Spokane Second Harvest's Annual Food Drive.
All students who are accepted into COLT make a commitment to stay drug- and alcohol-free. And they, Lesher says, have turned out to be each other's closest watchdogs, helping to keep each other in line at school and other times outside the program.
"Being in COLT is definitely a commitment," says Lily, 14. "But it's worth it to be with the horses."
Shalece, 12, who is in her first year with the program, agrees. "I wouldn't trade COLT for anything," she says.
Brenda, 17, a junior counselor, says she notices the changes COLT has affected in her life and those of the younger kids.
"It shows you that there are positive alternatives ... besides going out and smoking and getting drunk," she says.
Although COLT has supporters in the community like Spokane COPS (which provides the program with a van), veterinarians who donate their services, and individuals who donate horses, the organization is always looking for more help. Donations and/or volunteers - with or without a background in horses -- are always welcome.
COLT has the capacity to take on 200 kids a year; due to financial constraints, however, currently it can only afford 50.
"I'd like to have 200 kids," says Lesher, who took over as director last year. "But we can't do that without support from the community."
Lesher gets asked all the time how she knows this program really works. After all, she's not a therapist and has no professional mental health background.
Her response? "All I know is, when they're here with the horses, they're not out drinking, they're not getting high, they're not smoking."
And that's all the proof she needs.
For more information, e-mail email@example.com or call 926-2276 and ask for Sara Lesher, program director.