By Sarah Whitman
The cane Bob Theisen uses to walk rests up against a wooden fence. He won’t need it much today. Seated comfortably atop a horse named Tampa Bay, Theisen stretches his arms into the air and pushes past the pains associated with multiple sclerosis.
Theisen has just begun his therapy session at Quantum Leap Farm, a nonprofit serving disabled adults, military and seniors in Odessa.
“I’m happy to be here,” he says. “When I’m here, it’s just me and Tampa Bay.”
Quantum was founded in 2000 by Dr. Edie Dopking and is situated on 10 acres at 10504 Woodstock Road, just a few miles from the Veterans Expressway. The nonprofit serves about 750 clients and has a staff of highly trained instructors, including two mental health counselors and an exercise scientist.
Dopking, who has a PhD in aging studies, previously volunteered at Bakas Equestrain Center in Tampa, a nonprofit for disabled children. She opened Quantum with personal funds specifically to help those 18 and older.
“It’s very therapeutic,” said George Abinader, a marine left partially paralyzed by an automobile accident. “I get to work on my balance and my core muscles. It’s good exercise. ”
Abinader is an inpatient at James A. Haley Veterans Hospital. At Quantum, he feeds carrots to Idaho, a 12-year-old mare, and temporarily forgets about the routine of living in a medical facility.
Once a week, the hospital brings a group of veterans to Quantum for hippotherapy, a form of physical therapy using horses. Kim Peatee, a recreational therapist from the hospital, comes along for support.
“This is the best therapy out there,” Peatee said. “A lot of our patients have spinal cord injuries. Here, they can work on range of motion and do other things that they might otherwise not be able to. It’s a way for them to get out of the hospital.”
Navy seaman Henry Sawyer injured his spinal cord playing football and is reliant on a wheelchair. He is stationed in Jacksonville but is currently staying at the veterans’ hospital. His wife Lusanda and son, Mikhail, are also in Tampa. The whole family visits Quantum.
“I grew up on a farm so I like it here because it reminds me of the old days,” Sawyer said with a smile. “It’s good exercise and it brings up morale. It lets us know we can still do things.”
Lusanda said being around the horses visibly lifts her husband’s spirits.
“He’s more relaxed when he’s here because he’s doing something he loves to do,” she said.
In addition to veterans, Quantum serves many individuals with developmental and acquired disabilities.
Theisen contacted the farm after seeing an advertisement in the paper. Since being diagnosed with MS in 1994, he’s sought out countless therapies. None have worked as well as training with Tampa Bay.
“With me, physical therapy is about thinking outside the box,” he said. “I’ve been doing hippotherapy for six years and the difference from where I started to where I am now is huge. I am more flexible and I’m able to move better. Plus it’s fun.”
Liz Howell is Theisen’s instructor. She has a bachelor’s in exercise science from the University of South Florida and is Quantum’s stable manager.
“When someone comes here, it’s all about what they want to get out of it,” Howell. “Some want to work on strength and flexibility. Some just come here to get away from the world.”
In addition to using riding as therapy, Quantum uses a program called At E.A.S.E, Equine Assisted Self Exploration. Clients in the program work with a trained counselor and horse specialist doing activities other than riding. They spend time petting, feeding and brushing the animals. It is often used as mental health therapy.
“For many people, being here is an opportunity to heal,” said Mary Diana, operations coordinator for Quantum. “This may not be traditional therapy but the results are amazing.”
Howell said just spending time on the farm is therapeutic. When she’s having a bad day, the people and the animals cheer her up. In addition to horses, a 1000-pound pig, three turkeys, two cats, a donkey and a black lab call Quantum home.
“People come here and the place just brings a smile to their face,” Howell said.
To manage it’s approximated half million dollar annual budget, Quantum applies for hundreds of grants each year.
They have received support from a variety of sources including Publix Supermarkets Charities, the USAA Foundation Charitable Trust and Nutrena Feeds, Inc.
The organization was recently awarded the 2010 Audrey Nelson Community Development Achievement Award from the National Community Development Association. The Hillsborough County Affordable Housing Department nominated Quantum for the award for its pole barn project that was funded through the department.
Diana said the farm receives multiple awards and grants because the services offered bring joy to the lives of so many people.
“Our therapies affect the clients in so many ways, physically, emotionally and socially,” she said. “It can be hard to motivate somebody who is struggling with a disability but just about anybody who comes out here perks up.”
Theisen considers Quantum a sanctuary, a place where he can set down his cane and temporarily make use of a stronger set of legs.
“When I’m here, this is my time,” he said. “I can forget about everything else.”
One-hour therapy sessions are $40 for disabled and $50 for able-bodied adults.
For information on Quantum Leap Farm, call (813) 920-9250 or visit www.QuantumLeapFarm.org.