If a sisterhood of angels has its way, Friday the 13th of September will deal a hand of good fortune to children in need.
“We are calling it Lucky Friday,” said Mary Lou Martin, a co-chair of the Angel Charity for Children 2019 Big Deal Texas Hold ‘Em Tournament, Casino & Entertainment, which will be held Sept. 13 at the Hacienda Del Sol Guest Ranch Resort.
Chair Jeannie Nguyen and co-chairs Martin, Lisa Owens-Sredzinski and Lani Baker are predicting good luck for poker players, casino gamers and other supporters as well as the 10 children’s nonprofits that will benefit from the event.
“For the past 36 years, we have been Tucson’s ‘Halo for Hire,’ and by partnering with very committed donors, we have funded nearly $27 million in grants for charities to improve the lives of more than 1 million children in Pima County,” Martin said. “We are so grateful for the generous donors in the Tucson community who continue to support us each year as well as our many new sponsors, and we couldn’t do it without them.”
Angel Charity will continue the tradition with annual pledges totaling $1 million this year to local charities.
Primary beneficiaries are Children’s Clinics for Rehabilitative Services, which will receive $700,000; and Therapeutic Ranch for Animals & Kids, or TRAK, which will receive $104,840; an additional $159,021 will be dispersed to Abbie School, Amphi Foundation, Cascade Foundation of Southern Arizona, Cooper Center for Environmental Learning, Courtney’s Courage, Diaper Bank of Southern Arizona, Gap Ministries and Lead Guitar.
Martin emphasized that Angel Charity prioritized impact when choosing beneficiaries.
“For the amount of money that these nonprofits requested, they will impact the greatest number of children,” Martin said.
Children’s Clinics serves almost 7,000 children annually under an umbrella of programming, including primary health care, speciality medical care, rehabilitative therapies and behavioral health.
Angel Charity funds will be used to renovate the clinic’s facility and create a one-of-a-kind treatment space designed to meet the needs of children with complex medical diagnoses and serve as a center of excellence for children diagnosed with autism spectrum disorders. The clinic serves children with a wide range of issues, including cerebral palsy, spina bifida, congenital heart conditions, genetic conditions, muscular dystrophy and more.
“We have piloted a very innovative model of care for kids diagnosed with complex medical conditions. We already offer a multispecialty clinic where families come to one building for one appointment and see all of their doctors, therapists and providers, and the center for excellence will function similarly,” said Gemma Thomas, chief administrative officer for Children’s Clinics.
She emphasized that it can be challenging for families of children diagnosed with autism to coordinate resources and develop comprehensive care plans.
“We are trying to simplify that and put everything in one place for these families. The center is the first of its kind in Southern Arizona. It is really designed to care for a unique population of kids with complex diagnoses that include severe autism. We are over the moon about Angel Charity becoming part of the Children’s Clinics family and look forward to serving the kids we already see in a meaningful way and taking care of this new population as well,” Thomas said.
TRAK is equally thrilled about the Angel Charity grant, which will allow it to maximize its impact on the lives of at-risk and disabled children, said development director Melinda Sharma.
Angel Charity funding will be used to hire and train two new full-time staff members — including TRAK’s first licensed mental-health professional — in the equine-assisted learning and growth model for its Animal-Assisted Life Skills program. The expanded programming will offer personalized therapy to about 3,000 children with conditions such as autism; ADHD; depression and other mental-health disorders; Down syndrome; cerebral palsy; and other chronic health issues.
“We set up situations with horses in which we sort of flip the role so the child becomes the parent and their job is to protect the horse,” said Sharma.
She described a sample exercise in which a three-sided box is created with plastic poles in the center of a large pen. The child must convince the horse to enter the box without touching the animal in the presence of increasingly challenging distractions, such as food and other horses.
“So the box becomes a safe space and outside of the box represents all of the temptations of the world. For some this could be drugs, for others it might be gangs or thievery. All of their lives, these kids have been the recipients of services and therapies in office-type settings. We empower them to be in control and build the skills to establish authority over a 1,000-pound animal. We teach them with horses to build confidence in themselves and it is life-changing,” said Sharma, whose son, Deven, has experienced the benefits of the life-skills program.
Deven, 20, was diagnosed with autism at age 3, with predictions that he would need to be institutionalized. Through private life-skills sessions and other TRAK programs, Deven has made significant progress and now volunteers with TRAK and WorkAbility, a nonprofit dedicated to preparing people with disabilities for sustainable work opportunities, Sharma said.
“TRAK always sees abilities; they don’t see disabilities. They look at what a child can do and help that to blossom,” she said.
The grant from Angel Charity marks a pivotal growth point for TRAK, Sharma said.
“They have given a tremendous gift to impact the community and it is so needed. The kids who have participated in (the Animal-Assisted Life Skills program) don’t even call it therapy because they are having so much fun that they don’t realize they are being changed during the six-week process,” she said.