Gates Creek residents Bonnie and Lauren Golino love their animals. And their animals love working with children and adults with special needs.
Their horses, Dylan and Fiona, and mule, Izzy, will be supporting Special Olympics Florida-Manatee County as it relaunches its equestrian program after a decade-long hiatus.
“I think they have a calling,” Bonnie Golino said of her animals, noting one Special Olympics athlete stops by the farm each week to read to their donkey. “We want this to be something that gives back to the community.”
Special Olympics is an international program providing fitness training, education and athletic competition for children and adults with intellectual or developmental disabilities.
The Golinos spent one year securing a recreational-use permit from Manatee County for their farm, Cavalli Creek Farms, at 758 Gates Creek Road, Bradenton. The permit allows them to use the land to host the Special Olympics equestrian program, which officially begins November 10. The program starts at 10 a.m. every Saturday at the farm.
Ella Quaid rides the mule, Izzy, during a Special Olympics riding lesson last year. Courtesy photo.
Lauren Golino, a medical student at Lake Erie College of Osteopathic Medicine, was approached last year by her friend, Ash Giaffari, about hosting Special Olympics children at the farm on a trial basis. She agreed, and both the Special Olympics riders and the Golino family fell in love with the results. About six families participated last year.
For the Golinos to host an official program, though, they needed the permit, which they now have in hand. “It feels like we’re giving back,” Bonnie Golino said. “It’s not just to the kids. It’s the families. They get a break.”
Pam Fazio, director of Special Olympics Florida – Manatee County, said Special Olympics plans to grow the all-volunteer program gradually. “They’ve done all this for Special Olympics and their athletes at no charge to us,” Fazio said. “If it wasn’t for them we wouldn’t have our program. The partnership is working out very well. This year, we’re starting a program that’s going to include competition.”
Athletes will compete in the County Games in January, and then advance to area and possibly state-level competition. The program helps athletes improve their motor skills, balance and concentration, Fazio said.
Lakewood Ranch 17-year-old Ella Quaid, who has Down syndrome, tried the Special Olympics equestrian program last year, and said she loves it. She is eager to compete in horse shows, said her mother, Stacy Quaid.
“Ella has done various versions of hippotherapy (the use of horseback riding as therapy and rehabilitation), including InStride Therapy and SMART (Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy). But, she really loved the Special Olympics program because it’s more learning about horseback riding competition as a sport. She’s interested in learning how to ride independently and how to compete in horse shows.”
Her son, Dylan, who has no disabilities, wants to volunteer to assist riders or help warm up the horses. “It’s very rare they can do something together like this and be part of something together,” Quaid said. “It’s nice for our family.”
Lauren and Bonnie Golino said they love seeing the riders and their families interact with the animals.
With the recreational permit in hand, the Galinos hope to host a Special Olympics fundraiser. She said the land could possibly be used for other Special Olympics programs, like soccer or bocce.
“It gives us a lot of flexibility, but that’s what we’re excited about,” Lauren Golino said, noting they could even use the farm for other charity fundraisers or birthday parties, for example.
Bonnie Golino said whatever activities occur at the farm will be carefully evaluated so as not to disturb neighbors. “Whatever we do, we intend to be a good neighbor,” she said.