Nuance, Caring and Kindness in Times of Pandemic and Viral Judgement

Great Strides is not the stereotypical horse-riding school. Hidden among suburban houses on Saddle Rock Ranch in Middle Island, NY, it is a place with a difference: it offers therapeutic riding lessons for the differently abled, for veterans, and for independent riders of typical abilities who are interested in an alternative to competition driven, horse-show centered riding schools. Instructors at Great Strides base their teaching philosophy on personal confidence building and on connection between people and animals.

The riding-school works in close association with Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, Inc, or FREE[1], an organization that services around 5000 people with various intellectual and developmental challenges across Long Island. On any typical day before the Covid 19 pandemic, groups from FREE arrived at the ranch to learn about gardening, landscaping and caring for animals who live at Saddle Rock: goats, pigs, rabbits, hamsters, a mini donkey and horses. They also had the opportunity to ride the horses with the help of volunteers who accompany horse and rider throughout the lesson to ensure safety. Great Strides offers lessons for participants arriving through FREE, but the riding-school services students, around 140 per year, from a variety of contexts, including people with health conditions such as cerebral palsy, severe autism, or blindness. Volunteers and riders of typical abilities at the school are committed to nature, animals, physical exercise and hard work.

In the middle of March this year, life on the ranch came to a standstill. Along with all other organizations and venues deemed non-essential, Great Strides was ordered to shut down due to the pandemic. All activities were abruptly cancelled, including outdoor individual riding lessons and therapeutic programs. In fact, along with all venues for the disabled in NY, Family Residences Inc. was ordered to shut down as well, leaving the organization to scramble so they could reimagine all activities to be internet based. Volunteers and most of the staff were banned from entering Saddle Rock Ranch, exempting only a minimum number of payed staff who fed and cleaned the animals, and made sure that the horses were being moved outside the stalls several times a day.

The ranch became empty of people. Quiet and peaceful, in a way, while not fully deserted, as the animals and a few members of the staff were still there. A lone figure could be spotted pushing a wheelbarrow full of hay, driving a small tractor, or cleaning the goat pen. For a few days, it almost felt like a welcome change, an opportunity to mentally clear the noise and be safe. But as the weeks passed, a new tone of silence lingered behind the apparent calm: that of fear, of insecurity, along with a yearning for human contact, for physical connection.

I decided to create a documentary art piece about aspects of the Covid 19 pandemic and of the resulting shut-down about one month into the crisis. I wanted to create material that would counterpoint the simplified and slogan-driven narratives that dominated public conversation about the virus and about regulations introduced as a response to it. I was troubled to see a narrative space in which rigid categories appeared to rule. There were picture-perfect ‘savers’ and ‘heroes’, the ‘selfless’ who only lived to protect others. There were equally picture-perfect ‘patriots’, ‘defenders of American values’ who advocated defying public health regulations as a default. Both mainstream and social media were awash with voices arguing that ‘Life’ and ‘the Economy’ were two completely different and likely opposing entities that could not possibly be mentioned and discussed on the same page. It all left me wondering who the real ‘voiceless’ in the middle of all that noise were.

As has happened many times over the past years, I was feeling that fear-driven, hate-filled or dogmatic voices from various corners of society were drowning out complex perspectives and conversations based on real kindness to fellow citizens. Our physical and narrative spaces have resembled war zones where the loudest and most aggressive rule and the rest of the population, the civilians, with their complicated life situations, conflicting interests and not-always-consistent opinions are excluded, thought of as irrelevant, or, worse, labelled as harmful. Countless news reports and opinion pieces, typically written from the safety of a paid, still existing, online-friendly work environment, appeared to suggest that people who advocate for opening businesses were selfish, careless, or simply driven by a “desire to have their hair and nails done”. Talking to many people whose job, or whose life in general, was less online-compatible, suggested that this was far from the truth.

In some ways, the emotions brought to the fore by the pandemic were understandable. There is no denying that the situation created by the Covid 19 virus was new and clearly carried many dangers both in terms of infection risks and livelihoods upended or lost. Decisions had to be made fast, without the ability to rely on extensive expert advice or years of data collection. Doctors and policymakers were in no enviable positions. However, as the storm recedes, or at least allows us some hindsight, it will be important to take a step back and evaluate the ways in which conflating slogans with ‘the truth’ limits real communication. Instead of building empathy, a slogan-ruled narrative space pits people with different opinions against each other. In the hope of breaking that pattern, I wanted to create a piece which not only avoided politicizing individual opinions, but also offered a visually artistic alternative to loud and divisive voices. A piece of documentary art, rather than activism.

*

I have known the staff and the horses at Great Strides for 3 years now, as my daughter has been a rider and a volunteer there since she was 13. In mid-May I called Julie Dell’Aira, the co-founder and executive director of the riding school and asked her if she would be willing to participate if I wrote a piece about aspects of the shutdown and about the school’s experiences over the previous two months. She said yes, so I went to the ranch to meet with her. We agreed that I would come early afternoon, on a weekday, around the time she finished her daily schedule.

When I arrived at the ranch, Julie was busy moving hay with a large pitchfork, then stuffing it in containers for the horses to eat. She greeted me while she carried on with the hay, then she went on to wash a large plastic box at the tap by the stalls. “I forgot you were coming today”, she told me matter-of-factly, “let me finish up here so I can clock out, then we can talk”.

Julie is an outspoken woman in seemingly perpetual motion, who gives you the impression that she not only knows the work that needs to be done but does not shy away from doing any of it. She appears to be a force of nature. After she ‘clocks out’ we start walking around the horse paddocks of the empty ranch to talk and keep the 6 feet distance to be safe. Julie holds a small container in her hands with home-made salad inside it. “I am sorry, but I have not eaten since the morning, so I am going to have lunch while we talk”. We stop by a paddock and Tito, one of the school’s horses, comes to say hi to Julie who greets him with a few mockingly scolding words and pats the horse on the neck. I ask Julie to give me a short summary of the origins of Great Strides.

“Before I became the director at Great Strides, I ran the therapeutic riding program as a volunteer at FREE for 12 years. When I was laid off from my job in marketing in 2013, I ended up with a job at Saddle Rock Ranch as a habilitation specialist, a position I have held for 6 years now. With the goal of establishing a structured equestrian curriculum, FREE asked me to take over the lesson programs for the community. This is how I started developing the riding program at Great Strides to its current form.

When I ask her how the shutdown affected her work, Julie explains: “In my official employment status I work for FREE, I am their employee. When FREE had to close, employees were given the choice to be furloughed or to pick up hours at a group home. I needed income, but I did not want to go work in a group home because I was worried that the risk of getting the virus would be much higher in an indoor group setting where people, by nature of their disability, have difficulty understanding the need for masks or physical distancing, or are unable to cope with the consequences of it. To tell you the truth, I was not particularly worried about my own health per se, but I have an 12 months-old granddaughter who had a heart replacement surgery when she was 4 months old. She is well and healthy now, but her immune system will always be compromised, I did not want to be in a position where I have to worry about infecting her with a virus, be it Covid 19, the flu, or anything else.”

Julie explains to me that she is no stranger to possible complications from viral infections, nor to the need and the tools for protecting others from them. “When the pandemic hit, part of me felt relieved, I thought that now everyone will understand what it means to have to be careful because a loved one’s life or well-being can depend on what you do and what you expose yourself to. With my granddaughter’s condition we have had to live with that reality for over a year now”. Since the beginning of the pandemic Julie’s family decided to quarantine the little girl at home, in the house where she lives with her parents. The grandparents have been able to spend time with her only from a distance, see her and talk to her through a window. As for her own experience with viral infections gone wrong, Julie explains that a few years back she had the flu which, after initial improvement, unexpectedly turned into full-blown pneumonia. She was taken to the hospital where the X-ray showed that both her lungs were 70% filled with mucus and liquid. Julie spent 4 days in the ICU and then another 6 days in a regular hospital bed. She survived. “Trust me”, she adds, “I do not want to go through that again or put anybody at risk. At the same time, you cannot stop living life because you are scared of death.”

Julie tells me that she was fortunate: When the pandemic hit, Saddle Rock ranch was in need of an extra hand around the animals so Julie secured hours for herself by working at the ranch. She mucks stalls and pens, feeds the horses, goats, pigs and bunnies, and moves the horses between the paddocks and the stalls several times a day. The job involves hard, physical labor and an early-morning schedule but Julie says she is glad to have found something to keep herself busy. “I looked into filing for unemployment, as that was one of my options. It turned out that if I had chosen to apply for benefits I would have ended up receiving more money than what I am making now, working at the ranch. But I am healthy and able, and I can take care of myself. I chose to work”.

Great Strides’ two main sources of income are grants and revenue from lessons. Riders of typical abilities pay fully out-of-pocket, as do many who have mental or physical challenges but do not arrive within the framework of FREE. “I have been able to cover our expenses from grant money already received. But revenue from the lessons have completely dried up for over six weeks now. We cannot go on like this much longer if we want to keep the place open”, says Julie.

At the beginning of May equestrian schools petitioned New York governor, Andrew Cuomo, to allow them to open programs involving individual lessons to secure income. The schools were hoping to cover the unavoidable expenses inherent in keeping animals, and make sure they have a chance of re-starting their full programs once the pandemic recedes. Julie continues:

“We could currently safely run about 70% of our programs if we were allowed to do so. Social distancing would not be a problem, students could be scheduled 15 minutes apart to avoid physical contact between them. This is a suburban/rural area where everybody drives, there are no public transportation issues. The 15 minutes would give us enough time to disinfect the equipment between students, who actually ride wearing gloves to start with.”

The equestrian schools never received the permission; their circumstances were not considered worthy of special attention.

“I do not see myself as a victim, nor do I see the program at Great Strides as a victim of this epidemic. This is not the way I think about life in general. Life always throws challenges in your face and the best thing to do is to adapt to a new situation, whether you like it or not. Otherwise, you will be crushed by difficulty. You do what you need to do to make the most of a compromised situation, then you continue. That is the way I look at things.”

***

Matthew is a student who was taking riding lessons at Great Strides. He is a non-verbal 19 year-old young man, whose condition places him on the serious end of the autism spectrum. Although he cannot articulate words, he is able to communicate basic needs and simple thoughts via an IPad. As most people living with autism, Matthew needs a regular schedule and consistency to properly function. Due to the severity of his condition, Matthew requires assistance to perform most simple tasks, like doing school-work, or folding laundry.

Matthew has been taking lessons at Great Strides for over two years. He had previously been participating in riding lessons at a different ranch, but his behavioral difficulties led that riding school to dismiss him from the program. Matthew’s mother, Margot, found Julie after having tried to enroll her son in several other riding programs but having been repeatedly turned away. By the standards of most equestrian schools Matthew was deemed too complicated to handle, and also too heavy to ride due to his weight, which is over 200 pounds. When Julie learned about Matthew, she took him on as a student. I talked to Margot, who described her son and their situation to me, in mid-June.

“With some exceptions, Matthew’ cognitive abilities are similar to an average seven or eight year-old, with the added difficulty that any information he learns about a situation in one given moment does not transfer naturally to a similar situation at a different place or to a different point in time. For example, the fact that people suddenly have to wear masks, or that they wear them in certain places, but not in others, is not something that he easily understands. We need to keep explaining that to him, several times a day, and even after the explanation, he gets frustrated with what he sees. It appears to him as inconsistency, so it unsettles him.”

Margot, who teaches first-year Composition and Introduction to Literature at Queensborough Community College, CUNY, explains that when faced with new or unexpected situations Matthew’s emotional reactions can lead him to yelling, wailing, or displays of aggressive behavior. He has the habit of biting either himself or objects when he is frustrated. “He is typically not aggressive towards other people, or towards his animals (Matthew’s family has two cats), but he bites objects, which on various occasions have led him to crack phone screens, or his own teeth.”

“The mandatory shut-down was a severe blow for us. Under regular circumstances, Matthew goes to an alternative high school, run by Western Suffolk BOCES[2]. That means that he is outside of the house from 7.30 in the morning till about 2pm, which allows me the time to prepare my classes or to teach. A couple of days a week he attends organized afternoon activities, the same goes for about 5 hours on Saturdays. On Sundays he goes horse riding at Great Strides. The ranch is far from where we live, it is a good hour drive, but it always made a huge difference for him to be outside, to exercise… we would pack lunch that we could eat at the ranch, we sort of made a day out of it…

When the shut-down order came down in mid-March I understood the reason for it. But the reality of the situation was that while I was expected to perform my college teaching duties under radically new conditions and with countless added complications, I was also expected to care for Matthew, who suddenly spent every waking hour of the day at home, as his school closed and all other activities he used to participate in were cancelled. I was expected to develop an online curriculum for my students at Queensborough College, set up and maintain the logistics for online teaching, participate in endless Zoom meetings at the College about strategies for dealing with the situation, while also managing Matthew and his needs, trying to explain to him with the use of drawings and simple sentences why everybody’s life has suddenly been completely upended. I also had to participate in additional, online training sessions for parents of children with the type of disability my son has, so I could better assist his learning from home and have a professional attitude about any issues that came up. I felt that I was expected to perform the job of two or three full-time, paid workers.”

Margot tells me that the situation made her reflect on the varied meanings of ‘essential services’, and on types of work that society currently values and rewards. The repetitive, unglamorous task of caring for children at home, as a mother, is hardly considered to be a legitimate job, let alone glorified in most public conversation. The rigid schedules that someone engages in for the sake of someone else, whether a healthy or disabled child or adult, are not being considered ‘essential’, they are taken for granted as obvious, particularly if they are performed by a relative, without an employment basis.

“In order to be recognized as an ‘essential worker’ you need a paid employment, at the same time if you have a paid employment, how do you perform your naturally essential tasks around a son like Matthew, when help is declared non-essential, therefore illegal?

It felt frustrating, to say the least. But we are not victims. Considering the circumstances, we are lucky. I am an educator, I have experience teaching and I am also in a position to be able to buy the necessary supplementary materials for my son so he can keep himself busy and also maintain some learning. Both my husband and I have steady jobs and were able to accommodate, to work over the internet and still get paid, we were both able to keep some flexibility in our schedules. My husband is an IT technician, which means that his workload became heavier as companies and organizations needed to rely on well-functioning, 24-hour internet technology to transition to online work. Over the past few weeks he had to start visiting clients to fix problems that could not be handled remotely, and to rewire workspaces to allow for adequate social distancing, so he was not in a position to help out much around Matthew. At the same time his knowledge came in handy whenever we had issues with technology at home. But it is hard to imagine what parents with a different background or a rigid work schedule, like a bank-teller working remotely, could do. What choices did they have? For students with Matthew’s condition online teaching is not an adequate alternative on the long run. Their attention span is very short. Matthew needs someone to sit with him and keep him on task most of the time.

The notion that his school would be unsafe to return to at this point, that keeping people at home is the only acceptable way to show kindness and care about life…I am not sure about that. Some of the students at James E. Allen have immune systems that put them at higher risk of any viral transmissions, that is true, but exactly for that reason the school maintains a highly sanitized environment to begin with, the staff there are extremely careful when it comes to cleanliness. There are only 12 students in a classroom. While I obviously have some concerns, as most of us do, I would be comfortable with Matthew returning to school. But for the moment, there are no activities for special ed students allowed for the summer, and we have no news about plans for the fall either. I hope that Great Strides will start offering lessons soon. If services do not come back as normal, it will be extremely difficult to balance maintaining a high performance at my job while caring for Matthew at home.”

*

The problems reflected in these interviews are not outliers, neither are they marginal.

According to their website, BOCES, which operates James E. Allen Alternative School, serves 15,753 students in special education classroom settings in New York State. BOCES membership is not currently available to the “Big Five” city school districts: New York City, Buffalo, Rochester, Yonkers, and Syracuse, which means that the number of affected students in New York State living in those districts are not included in this number.

[1] Family Residences and Essential Enterprises, Inc, is a social services organization with a philosophy ‘rooted in the realization of human potential’. According to their website, the organization, which was founded in 1977, benefits and proudly supports more than 4,000 individuals with intellectual/developmental disabilities, mental illness, and traumatic brain injury.

[2] James E. Allen Alternative School, that „serves disabled students, ages 11 through 21, who require highly intensive management needs due to conduct disorders”.

The author is a writer and a documentary photographer. For further information please visit her website at: https://www.ildikotillmann.com/

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Ildiko Tillmann

Ildiko Tillmann

I am an author and documentary photographer, working at the crossroads of art and documentary. website: https://www.ildikotillmann.com/