Mike Clark, vice chairman of the Daviess County Public Schools Board of Education, was honored by the Kentucky Retired Teacher Association’s Frank R. Hatfield Volunteer of the Year Award during a ceremony in Louisville on April 26.
KRTA executive director Dr. Bob Wagoner said the award is based on the uniqueness of a volunteer activity for which no pay is received; the number of hours and/or value of materials donated to the volunteer activity; and the benefits realized by recipients of the volunteer activity.
Clark is the founder of Dream Riders of Kentucky, a non-profit organization that provides equine-assisted therapeutic riding services for disabled individuals.
“Dream Riders of Kentucky began as a dream that led to honoring my two precious daughters and finding a way to serve the many special needs citizens of our area with a program that would change their lives for the better” -Mike Clark
Megan and Erin
Paul Michael Clark and his wife Rose were blessed with three children. Their oldest daughter, Megan, was a beautiful girl who was outgoing, smart, and involved in numerous school activities. Brian was an athletic young man who enjoyed baseball and basketball. Their third child was Erin – a special little girl who had Down Syndrome. The Clarks made it their mission to nurture Erin and include her in all their family activities, including Erin’s favorite: Riding her horse. The family moved to the country to enjoy their time together and so there would be plenty of room for Erin’s horse.
Their lives changed forever when Megan was killed in a one-car accident on Highway 81. She had dedicated her life to serving others and especially to caring for her little sister Erin. As the family struggled to cope with their loss, they realized some of their happiest memories were of horseback riding. In memory of Megan’s great love for Erin, Mike and Rose decided to dedicate their lives to serving other children with mental and physical challenges.
A Few Dollars and Two Borrowed Horses
Dream Riders of Kentucky Inc. began in 2003. Mike Clark remembers they started with “a few dollars, two borrowed horses and a handful of volunteers.” Since then, the organization has grown to involve about 75 volunteers who work with more than a dozen horses, caring for the stables and equipment and ensuring that more than 250 clients per year, ranging in age from 2 to 92, have the opportunity to experience the freedom and exhilaration of horseback riding.
Among those who have benefited from Dream Riders are individuals with Down Syndrome, autism, multiple sclerosis, paralysis, developmental delays, muscular dystrophy, blindness and strokes. The program includes service to special education classes in public school districts, as well as residents of the Wendell Foster Center, trainees of the Opportunity Center and individuals served by local community centers. The service area includes Daviess and its contiguous counties, with some participants from Evansville, Ind.
Dream Riders services are fee-based but only a small percentage of the actual cost of service is charged and nobody is turned away for lack of money. As an organized non-profit 501(c)3, the association sponsors a variety of fundraising activities that allow them to maintain a facility that includes a welcome area for clients and families; a large riding arena; specialized equipment, such as ramps and wheelchair lifts that make it easier for individuals to mount the horses; and the cost of feed, farrier and veterinary services for the herd of horses; tractors and other farm implements needed to maintain the 16-acre property; as well as the costs of insurance, utilities and other operating expenses.
Volunteers are trained on how to provide safe and effective therapeutic riding services for clients, as well as on support roles such as cleaning stalls, grooming horses. “All of us are rewarded with a happy heart and joyful spirit, knowing that we are helping make the dreams of our rider clients become a reality,” Clark said.
Clark estimates that he has donated approximately 8,000 hours to his “labor of love,” including building and repairing various structures and fences, mowing and weed eating, hauling hay, cleaning stalls, shoveling manure and working at fundraisers.
Clark’s Career in Education
Clark was unable to attend the awards ceremony but was represented by Harold Wilson, president of the Second District Retired Teachers Association. Wilson shared a heartwarming speech about Mike Clark’s dedication to serving others, including a summary of Clark’s early years as a member of the Peace Corps and his work as a missionary.
Clark began his career in education in 1963 as a chemistry teacher at Apollo High School, later serving as principal at Daviess County Middle School and retiring as principal at Burns Middle School in 2000 after 47 years of service as an educator in public and parochial schools. He was elected to the DCPS Board of Education in 2011.
Board chairman Frank Riney said his colleague’s award is well deserved. “Mike has put in a lot of years and done great work as an advocate for these kids,” Riney said. “It’s wonderful to see him honored with this recognition.”
Clark said he is very appreciative of the award but is most proud of the work done by Dream Riders in bringing smiles to so many people over the years. “Dream Riders of Kentucky began as a dream that led to honoring my two precious daughters and finding a way to serve the many special needs citizens of our area with a program that would change their lives for the better,” Clark said. “I am always aware that serving others is the basic calling for those who seek happiness and self-actualization. In doing so, I have been blessed and rewarded beyond measure.”