HARVARD, Ill. -- On a rainy day at a farm in rural McHenry County, BraveHearts volunteers loaded up horses for a conditioning ride for Trail To Zero, an awareness campaign that spotlights the suicide epidemic among U.S. veterans.
As a nonprofit organization, BraveHearts has changed the lives of hundreds of servicemen and servicewomen through the healing power of horses.
"Every single day I see miracles at this place," said Amanda Bethards, a former Navy Corpsman and current volunteer coordinator at BraveHearts. "It's been my happy place since I started, and it's still my happy place."
BraveHearts President and COO Meggan Hill-McQueeney describes the organization as the largest of its kind that connects veterans with horses. At its Harvard and Poplar Grove, Illinois farms, veterans and their family members take advantage of therapeutic riding and healing horsemanship at no cost thanks to donations.
"BraveHearts is just an amazing place where people discover their greatness," Hill-McQueeney said. "Horses have an incredible way of stepping in and helping us really become the person we want to be."
Brandon Grodsky, a former Army Paratrooper with the 82nd Airborne Division, came to BraveHearts after retiring from military service. He now volunteers with the organization and says he's a different person from when he arrived.
"When you're working with a horse, you have to be in the moment, and it kind of takes away all those outside influences and those stressors from your past life and just erases them," Grodsky said. "It just gives you a new focus, a new clarity and a new mental clarity to move on with the day and move on with your life."
Hill-McQueeney said veterans come to the farm with a variety of challenges, including anxiety, depression and PTSD. Air Force veteran Andy Cumberland said he struggled with substance abuse as well as a lack of mission and camaraderie before coming to BraveHearts.
"I can be having the worst day in the world, and I come here and my whole mindset changes," Cumberland said. "I feel happy, I feel energized and I feel I have that purpose again."
Cumberland participated in the Trail To Zero conditioning ride along with several other veterans at a farm in Bull Valley, Illinois.
It's estimated that around 20 former servicemen and servicewomen die from suicide every day in the United States.
"I could have well been a statistic, but I'm thankful that I found here," Cumberland said. "I've found a way to find a deeper love for myself and others as well."
According to Hill-McQueeney, the future of BraveHearts is more of the same: to serve as many veterans as they can and to add more horses, volunteers and farms.
"In an ideal world, I'd love to see a horse in a round pen at every VA hospital," Hill-McQueeney said. "Horses offer individuals physical, cognitive, emotional and even spiritual healing in so many different ways."
For more information on BraveHearts, visit braveheartsriding.org.