February 25, 2021
On a scenic country road in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, lies a twenty-one-acre horse farm with a large, beautiful home. At first sight, the property might seem unexceptional for the County, which is known for its agricultural heritage and its Mennonite and Amish residents. However, what goes on at the farm is truly extraordinary.
The property is the location of the Building Bridges Foundation, a charity that offers therapy to American veterans, especially those experiencing Post-traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD). What makes this charity particularly special is that the horses play an integral role in the therapy that takes place on the grounds; the formal term for what the Foundation offers is “equine-assisted therapy.”
The charity’s operations are coordinated by Emmanuel Bible College alumni Dale and Ann Marie Shaw, with Dale serving as CEO and Ann Marie as executive director of development. They bring to their roles an abundance of experience with charitable organizations in Canada and the United States. After attending Emmanuel Bible College, Dale had an eventful and productive career as a pastor, church planter, and denominational leader. From 1990 to 1997 he was the bishop of the Canadian Brethren in Christ Conference, which today exists as the Be In Christ Church of Canada. Ann Marie, also an ordained minister, has been highly successful in fundraising work and uses her expertise to encourage financial support of the Foundation, which offers all its therapy free of charge.
The Foundation was created by veteran Dave Anderson to meet a need that he understood all too well. His brother served in the military also and suffered terribly from what was then called “shellshock” before tragically ending his life. About a decade ago, Dave decided that he wanted to use his farm property to help veterans experiencing PTSD find healing. It is this farm that today hosts the Foundation and its therapy sessions. The location is well suited to his vision; Lancaster County, Ann Marie says, has approximately 32,000 veterans among its citizens.
The Shaws had retired when, in 2017, Anderson spoke to them about serving with the charity. Although they were not horse experts, they believed in his vision and agreed to offer their skills and talents. They formally accepted their roles in January of 2018 and have been gladly working for the Foundation since then.
The therapy sessions, Ann Marie says, involve four participants: a certified mental-health therapist, a certified equine specialist, the client, and the horse. In these sessions the client has the opportunity to interact and build a relationship with the horse, which brings its own personality, temperament, and experiences. For many, this hands-on, relationship-focused therapy is meaningful and highly effective. Ann Marie also says that there is research to suggest that interacting with horses can be linked to positive health outcomes.
In the present pandemic situation, the Foundation is deemed to provide an essential service and is therefore able to continue its operations. Safety precautions and protocols are in place to protect staff, volunteers, clients, and visitors.
The Foundation’s property also hosts the Veterans’ Café, which, under more normal circumstances, would be a hub of activity and socialization for local veterans. Dale notes that veterans can be most comfortable speaking to others who have served in the military, and this space gives them opportunities to engage in meaningful conversations while enjoying hot beverages, catching up on the news, and playing games.
Although the organization is not Christian, it does provide opportunities for believers like the Shaws to show the love and grace that are so central to their faith. A number of people from their church volunteer at the Foundation and show profound respect and compassion to the clients who come to the property.
Looking back on their years at Emmanuel, Dale notes his profound appreciation for the College and the education it provided. “We would not have done all the things we have done in life if not for Emmanuel,” he says.
The header image shows the farm property on which the Building Bridges Foundation operates. We thank Dale and Ann Marie Shaw for providing the information used in this article.