Over the last four years, a 12-year-old’s idea has blossomed into a major act of animal charity and a comprehensive learning exercise for schoolchildren.

Kelly and Meghan Rich, a mother-and-daughter team, have been honored as “volunteers of the year” for 2010 for their efforts at the Maine State Society for the Protection of Animals in Windham, which shelters about 50 abused or neglected horses.

“Meghan’s idea has become one of the most effective ways of raising our visibility in the community,” said Meris Bickford, society vice president.

Part of Kelly Rich’s second-grade curriculum each year includes raising money for a worthy cause. The Bruce Roberts Fund had been the usual vehicle, but Rich said the students worked hard yet never saw the result of their efforts.

“The students would often ask, ‘Where did our money go?’” Rich said. “I explained to them that it went to a family. But I couldn’t help notice the letdown on their faces.”

In 2006, Rich discussed this with Meghan while driving through town. Mom wanted a fundraiser and learning experience the kids could see the results of from start to finish.

Meghan, 12, said, “Why don’t you help animals? You should do something with the MSSPA because that’s where we like to stop and visit the horses.”

Minutes later, Rich pulled the car into society’s shelter, proposing the idea of bringing her second-graders to meet the horses and get a background on things before they tried to raise money for them.

In December 2007, Rich’s second-graders dropped off grooming supplies and nearly $500 for feed and hay. They learned why the animals were there, discovered what they required and put a fundraising budget together, which was collected through everything from bottle drives to bake sales to designing and marketing their very own T-shirts.

“The kids were immediately moved by stories the farm manager told,” Rich recalls. “We explained to the kids that being at MSSPA is now like a second life for these animals. They’re now in a safe place.”

The following year’s students raised almost double the amount and were honored by Gov. John Baldacci, Sen. Bill Diamond and Reps. Mark Bryant and Gary Plummer at the State House in Augusta.

The program really took off in 2009 when it spread to seven second-grade classes, with nearly 150 kids learning about neglected horses and raising money for them.

“I often encourage parents to attend our field trips,” Rich says. “And when they come, I hear time and time again, ‘How many times have I driven down River Road, noticed the horses and farm, but didn’t realize we could actually go and visit?’“

Many families continue to visit and support the cause long after their child has moved on in grades. On his birthday party each year, one boy instructs everyone not to bring him any gifts, but to bring a donation to MSSPA. After the party his mother drives him to the horses; he drops off the donation and pets his old friends.

MSSPA is New England’s largest equine rescue shelter and receives no government aid. Expenses for a typical year include $80,000 for hay, $40,000 for grain and more than $100,000 for veterinary care.

“I count Kelly and Meghan as a real blessing,” Bickford says. “As the economy struggles, we expect more horses to arrive here; we’re building that capacity now.”

Today, Meghan has her own horse. In addition to her ongoing volunteer work at the society, Bickford said she has respect for Meghan as an equestrian. A junior at Windham High School, Meghan attends a handful of shows each year with her four-legged friend, Dire Straights.

“I find her to be one of the most pleasant, thoughtful and courteous young women I can imagine,” Bickford said. “She’s a marvelous equestrian. She looks beyond the glory of simply doing well with her horse. She knows that when that horse reaches the end of its show career, someone’s going to have to take care of it.”

Meghan says she plans to keep on volunteering at MSSPA. “I don’t think there’s any other place that’s better to raise money for,” she said.

To learn more about MSSPA, visit www.msspa.org or call 892-3040. A Christmas Open House will take place from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. on Saturday, December 4.

 

Don Perkins is a freelance writer who lives in Raymond. He can be reached at: [email protected]