Behind tall fences topped with razor wire, tidy buildings and acres of lush lawns barely soften the hard reality of incarceration at Indian River Juvenile Correctional Facility in Massillon, Ohio. At any time the maximum security detention center is a temporary "home" to about 300 boys between the ages of 12 and 21 who have committed crimes ranging from felony 1 through 5. It’s easy for ordinary people to ignore places like this. Out of sight, out of mind ... but Lisa and Mike Randazzo are far from ordinary.
Each week they reach out to those behind the tall fences with a unique program using draft horses which have been rescued from abuse, neglect or in many cases, death. The young men and these horses often have much in common. Just as the horses' scars heal, a sort of healing also happens with the boys who interact with the animals.
The arrival of the Randazzo pickup, trailer and volunteer crew is anxiously awaited. A dozen or so very polite young men, most dressed in white t-shirts and black pants rush forward to meet the entourage. A few wear bright blue shirts indicating they have earned mentor status in the horse program–a distinction they wear with great pride. Mike, Lisa and their helpers are welcomed with big smiles and hugs.
In order for as many as possible to take part in the program, sessions are limited to two hours for three weeks during which the boys are introduced to grooming, harnessing, riding and driving the horses. It isn’t much time, but it’s obvious that every minute is precious to the kids who have come to know and love the horses and the volunteers.
In 2007, Lisa presented Indian River’s superintendent, Beth Oprisch, with her proposal to use horses to minister to the school's residents. The success of the program has exceeded everyone’s expectations. While animals are often used therapeutically in correctional facilities, previous efforts at Indian River had less than stellar results.
Jim Darnell, a unit administrator speaks from experience. “There was a greyhound program, but they paired the dogs with mental cases and that was bad for everyone, especially the dogs,” he recalls solemnly shaking his head.
A Quarter Horse program followed and, while it was promising and the boys enjoyed the horses, the constantly-fluctuating student population led to its premature demise. “The program used journaling to monitor the effectiveness of interaction with the horses, but as kids left the school the presenters were unable to collect consistent long-term data,” he explains. The round pen that was left behind when that project ended didn’t go unused for long.
When Lisa approached the school with her agenda, the administration eagerly agreed to give it a try. “We couldn’t be happier," beams Beth Oprisch. "The kids really respond to this.”
Facilities like Indian River face enormous challenges as they strive to maintain a safe, secure and humane environment while developing skills necessary for their charges to become good citizens upon release. One reason this program has proven so effective may be because the rehabilitated horses exemplify the potential of previously-damaged lives.
“The students are very interested. When the horses are here, there are no behavioral problems. The Randazzos come each week and their passion inspires the kids to be respectful. The majority of these kids come from metropolitan areas, so for many, this is their very first encounter with horses,” explains the superintendent.
While some start out fearful, the confidence built in a few short weeks is apparent by remarks overheard as the horses back out of the trailer.
“Oh, I sure hope I get to drive today…,” says Mason. He’s jittery with excitement. “I really like being with animals.” He smiles and tells me about his dogs back home. Another young man grabs a brush and begins grooming Reuben, a handsome Clydesdale, as he gushes, “I’ve gotten to ride and I’ve washed and brushed and long-lined so far…” There’s a palpable joy among the boys and the staff and the horses are visibly calm. The fact that each animal has a story to which these kids can relate is undoubtedly a factor in the success of God’s Gentle Giants.
While that “gentle giant” moniker is often inappropriately applied, in this case it is a wonderfully apt label as demonstrated by the horses the boys are fawning over. Percherons Pete and Zeke were several hundred pounds underweight when they came to the program. Reuben, the Clydesdale, was dismissed from a six-horse hitch when he no longer had enough flash. But the undisputed favorite is Moses, a former logging horse destined for slaughter not once, but three times.
He’s an extreme example of how not only people, but horses benefit from this program. “We bring abused horses because they connect with the kids,” says Lisa.
His hocks are still swollen and look like they’ve been painted green for some festival, but that’s just the sulfur and mineral oil Lisa uses to treat his compromised condition. The flesh was literally rotting off his legs when they acquired him a year earlier, but while his recovery is slow, it is steady. Lisa’s vet is amazed by his improvement.
Most people would have given up on Moses, and several actually did, but she saw something worth saving. That vision and dedication sends a powerful message to kids who might wonder if they themselves are worth saving. Her commitment to the battered horse conveys more than any words could say. It’s a safe bet that no horse anywhere receives more love or genuine concern than Moses does at Indian River.
The Percherons are being harnessed in the round pen. Reuben has been hitched to a cart and Lisa takes each boy for a drive around the huge grassy field. While Reuben may no longer have what it takes to be part of a fancy hitch, here he is a star who really shines. Behind the round pen Moses is the grateful recipient of most of the attention. He’s brushed, hugged, kissed and he’s privy to many secrets. One boy leads him as they take turns riding him bareback. Moses is clearly adored.
Staff members enjoy the lovely spring evening, too. “Come on, Miz O, go for a ride in the cart,” someone yells and obligingly the smiling superintendent climbs in for a go around the field. Although most of the kids have no experience with horses, they’re all eager to talk about what the program means to them.
Daniel says, “Being locked up, you get depressed, but being out here with the horses really makes you feel good." Then he adds, "I’ve only got 166 days left.”
“We all get something from these visits, but trust is the most important thing," says a serious boy named Joe. To get the trust of these big horses gives me a sense of power. Horses don’t lie. They show the truth and they aren’t out to trick you like some humans. It’s peaceful and you learn patience. I’ve learned how to take control without violence. When I get out I’m coming back here to volunteer.”
Joe wouldn’t be the first to do so. A former resident named Nick who had gained mentor status with God’s Gentle Giants now attends college and volunteers at a horse camp. As the evening draws to a close, all the boys encircle Moses. They all touch him and lower their heads. It’s apparent that they are praying which begs the question of the religious implications at this state facility.
The Randazzos are evangelicals whose mission is to lead others to God. Their bright blue shirts say "FBI," under which is explained "Firm Believers In Christ." Boys are forewarned of the program's religious focus and it is their choice whether they still want to take part in it. Unlike some religious interventions, God’s Gentle Giants projects a quiet message through actions more than through verbal preachings.
The Superintendent quickly points out that it was not the volunteers who initiated the closing prayer around Moses, but the boys. “Yes, religion is a component of the program, but it’s about freedom of religion, not freedom from religion," she says. "It’s the boys who want to pray for the horses. I see religion as the moral fabric that motivates volunteers to come and work with these kids.”
Dusk comes too soon and another week’s program draws to a close. After many more hugs and almost-tearful farewells, the horses are loaded into the trailer. The cart is somehow wrestled back into the bed of a pickup truck and the boys return to their dorms clearly enriched by what they have each personally experienced.
The Randazzos are proof that God works in mysterious ways. They’re dedicated to what Lisa describes as “God’s calling,” but it is perhaps their blunt honesty and refreshing lack of pretension that sets them apart from some “horse people.”
When asked about their background with horses, Lisa lets out a whoop and laughs, “What background! We are functioning giblets. We can tell you how not to do a lot of things.” Then she relates the unusual path that led her to Indian River.
“God doesn’t call the qualified. He qualifies the called,” she begins. Just two years earlier she had been an inner-city volunteer, passing out meals and tossing rose petals from the top of the Hope-Mobile. “I used to take rose petals from my garden and throw them out to make the kids look up. They would stuff the petals in their pockets and take them (and the meals) home because they wanted to give their caretakers something special. This was so important to me,” she recalls.
She was on top of the truck when the preacher forbade her from future petal tossing. That’s when she received her first message that changed the course of her life. “God said, 'Your joy has been taken away. Don’t go there anymore, get a horse.'”
She and Mike were living on 5.5 acres when she received that order, so, with admitted skepticism, she started looking at horses, finally settling on a mare named Rose. She felt the name was a sign. One thing led to another and the couple soon moved from their gated community to a 113-acre farm in the next county. They currently have nine horses with a couple in foal. The petite Lisa and her congenial husband Mike admit to getting as much from the prison sessions as any of the boys.
Reuben getting attention
“I just turned 41 and I know I am exactly where I’m supposed to be. I have a deep sense of peace within me. When I reflect on my life I see that it was all preparation for what I’m doing now,” Lisa says confidently. She’s seen the impact the horses have upon the young men.
“Most of them have never been around a farm animal, let alone one that weighs around a ton. We teach them how to use non-resistance training. Horses react a lot like people. Herd leaders make good choices and are respected by the rest of the herd, so they get to experience the pecking order up close and personal in a round pen. We teach the concept of herding and team work as well as how to love and be loved. The boys are immediately forced to learn respect and eventually they even learn to trust again.”
She notes the empathy between the boys and the animals. “Unfortunately, like the horses, these boys, too, have been hurt by humans. Some are even afraid of a gentle touch or a kind word.”
Lisa feels the formerly-abused horses are actually the ones ministering to the kids who are often stunned to learn of cruelties which have been inflicted upon some of the animals. “We are convinced that these Gentle Giants can soften a hardened heart quicker than any drug or psychologist," she says. "When we see the joy on the faces of these boys, it’s all worthwhile.“
The response to God’s Gentle Giants has been dramatic. Already another facility has requested their program. No outside funding offsets the program costs. Lisa quickly points out that her generous husband’s car dealership foots the bill, but Kalmbach Feeds generously donated Carhartts for which the entire crew is grateful. “It really helped our image,” she says, then laughs about looking like “the Beverly Hillbillies” with their driving cart stuffed into the bed of a pickup truck. Such good-natured self-deprecation makes it easy to see why the boys and staff at Indian River are all smiles when Lisa, Mike and their crew of volunteers arrive each week.
She wishes others would consider volunteering at youth facilities because she’s seen the healing benefits of their efforts. “There are so many knowledgeable people out there with draft horses that could be doing something like this in their own community. Some retired draft horses would thrive in programs like this. If we can do it, so can others.”