By Gordon Hopkins
Jefferson County Commissioners recently voted to give $65,000 to Whispering Acres Trail and Treasures of Fairbury, which commissioners feel provides an invaluable service to the community. The funding will not come from the county’s budget. Instead, it will come primarily from the American Rescue Plan Act (ARPA), with a smaller amount of money from a recent opioid lawsuit settlement.
Jill Kuzelka, owner and operator of Whispering Acres, made the request to commissioners at a meeting on Tuesday, February 21, 2023. She outlined several programs provided by Whispering Acres in need of funds.
About Whispering Acres
Whispering Acres Tails and Treasures is a non-profit 501(c)3 that provides Equine Assisted Learning (EAL), which is an educational program that is facilitated with individual or small group formats which focuses on activities with horses.
According to Kuzelka, “Understanding and utilizing a horse’s natural instincts, we create a form of experiential learning to help improve confidence, communication, leadership skills and family dynamics.”
Commissioners have often lamented the dearth of mental health services locally, particularly to those individuals who may at risk of ending up in the criminal justice system. Kuzelka works closely with Jefferson County’s Diversion Services and Attendance Support programs. Whispering Acres receives referrals from both Jefferson and Gage counties.
Not everyone who needs the services can afford it and that is where the support of the county comes in. One of the programs offered is called Take the Reigns, which are scholarships for low-income families. Kuzelka described some of the people those scholarships help, “That’s the one that we work with any kind of individual with any kind of challenge that they have. And those are the kids that are autistic. We have a young man that has schizophrenia that still comes out. I’m working with a young lady that is an alcoholic, and because of the work that she’s done out there, she decided to go to rehab and now she’s going to start coming back to us.”
Another program is Camp GRIT (Grow into a Resilient, Independent and Tenacious Young Adult).
“Camp GRIT is for kids who are nine to 17,” said Kuzelka. “Those kids all have a loved one, generally a parent, that suffers from some kind of addiction. So my goal with those kids is to stop that generational cycle.”
“One of the things I’m real proud that we do with these kids is we work on a WRAP workshop with them. WRAP is Wellness Recovery Action Plan. And that is to let these kids know what their life skills are, what some coping skills are, what it looks like in their life when they’re happy,’” said Kuzelka. “But it really sets these kids up with some coping skills that when things get really bad for them, they know how to try to get back to being happy. I’m not going to be able to wipe away all their problems, but every little bit seems to help.”
Kuzelka took the opportunity to tell commissioners about some of the successes Whispering Acres have had, such a one non-verbal child, “She’s nine years old, and she would not say a word (when she started). And now she’s leading groups.”
Not all of the programming is for children. Kuzelka said, “I have a 96-year-old veteran and he comes out and rides.”
The Horses for Honor program allows veterans and first responders to come out and work with horses free of charge. Kuzelka said, “So last year, we were able to get some funding from Gage County foundation to run our Veterans Program.”
How the Money Will Be Used
Kuzelka presented commissioner with a breakdown of how much each programs needs.
Reading Program Scholarships: $2,000. This is for low-income families and the funding will include staff time for two Whispering Acres facilitators to prep for each camp, which includes preparing the curriculum and the horses for each day. It will also allow for a book that each child will be able to take home when Reading Camp has concluded.
Take the Reins Scholarships: $13,000. This includes 10 sessions for 20 youth at $65 each.
Reins for Resiliency: $3,250. This is also for low-income families, 10 sessions for five youth at $65 each.” Kuzelka noted, “I have a family of three siblings and another family of two that are in foster care right now and have not been able to come out since last fall because of funding.
Camp GRIT: $41,668.37, According to Kuzelka, the total cost to run the camp for an entire year is $57,728. She has already obtained partial funding. The requested amount is needed to finish out the remainder of the year.
Horses for Honors Program: $4,500.
The total amount requested to support all the programs is $64,418.37.
Where the Money Comes From
The bulk of the funds will come from ARPA. President Joe Biden signed ARPA into law on March 11, 2021. It is a part of the $1.9 trillion economic stimulus to mitigate economic and health impact for COVID-19 and can be used for mental health services.
A smaller portion will come from the opioid settlement. Last year, Jefferson County received a check for $2,682.87, the first of a series of annual payments for settlements resulting from lawsuits against manufacturers and distributors of opioids.
Opioid settlement funds must be sued exclusively for substance abuse treatment or prevention, which Whispering Acres provides.
Kuzelka noted that the county is not the only source of funding for Whispering Acres, “I look for grants all the time.”
“I am supportive of Jill’s request here,” said County Commissioner Mark Schoenrock, who recommended approving the full amount requested. “That will support all those programs there that Jill highlighted there for us.”
The other commissioners concurred and voted unanimously to approve the request.
By Gordon Hopkins