Meet Brandi Ezell and Gail Clifton

We are continuing our series of interviews with the Executive Directors of our adopted  charities with an up close and personal discussion with Gail Clifton, Executive Director and Brandi Ezell, Assistant Executive Director of Sarasota Manatee Association for Riding Therapy (better known as SMART.)

Interview with Brandi and Gail

Question: What would you like our LWRWC members to know about SMART and your role as Executive Director?

Gail: What we do at SMART is important—and makes a real difference in many lives. Our program is not about giving pony rides to kids with disabilities. It’s about providing individuals of all abilities the opportunity to learn and grow, become physically stronger and become emotionally more connected. It’s about providing a place in which our participants can be supported and empowered to achieve their own dreams and become productive members of our society. It’s about providing a safe, caring and respectful place for our families and our volunteers—who are all traveling down the same trail. And–it’s about sharing that trail with some awesome ponies and horses that not only inspire us with their strength and magnificence—but also gift us all with lots of laughter, love and joy.

Brandi Ezell (L)and Nancy Wozniak

Brandi: Everyone here has a story. I have spent a lot of time thinking about the real impact SMART has on so many different people in so many different ways and am constantly reminded that it goes far beyond our farm’s gate. It makes me proud, on behalf of everyone at SMART, to hear of a student telling his mom that he has to do “barn chores” when he is at SMART so he needs to do chores when he is at home too. With tears in her eyes, his mom explained to me how incredible it felt for the two of them to load the dishwasher together! It was an honor to have a military veteran show up, out of the blue, and tell me that the last place she remembered feeling safe and at peace was when she participated in SMART’s Warriors In Transition program. It moved me deeply as I watched, from a distance, as she then spent some special one-on-one time with the horse she had bonded with in that workshop. The memory of watching one of our smallest riders, with crippling anxiety and fear, let go of her mother’s hand to take the hand of her volunteer and get on a horse for the first time ever is forever burned in my heart. I love that another young girl who started at SMART many years ago, angry at the world with no hope of ever doing much of anything but sitting in her wheelchair, can now be heard laughing out loud, teasing and encouraging her fellow classmates. Her laugh is one of the most precious sounds I have ever heard and one I look forward to hearing every Saturday morning.

I’ve given tours to many families looking for a place to belong and be around people who understand the struggles that go with having a family member with a disability. They come to us tired, frustrated and discouraged. However, when they see the acceptance and the support they will receive at SMART, I see hope come back. For a lot of our families, their one hour lesson at the farm is the only downtime these parents and caregivers get all week long! We make it a point to encourage them to take advantage of that time and enjoy some respite. We encourage them to read a book while rocking in one of the chairs on our wrap around porch, listen to music while getting their hands dirty in our new Sensory Garden or just sit and talk with other parents and caregivers under our Pavilion. For some, this is the perfect time for quality family time with their other children. At SMART, we help our participants through therapeutic activities with horses; we help their families by providing them with a peaceful place to relax and breathe.

We are truly blessed to have some of the most giving and caring human beings on the planet volunteering with us every day—of all ages. The teenagers and college students that volunteer with us are the future leaders of our community. At SMART they find a safe and engaging place to grow and become responsible, caring, empathetic, accepting, aware and contributing members of our community. Our adult volunteers bring a depth of life experience and stability that enhances our program greatly. Our volunteers are always sharing how their time at SMART has impacted their lives and the friendships that they have made. Not only do they become friends with our participants and their families, they also find a new “family” with the other SMART volunteers. It’s fun to see how those relationships, that started right here, have blossomed into lifelong friendships. Several of our snowbird volunteers find ways to get together over the summer when they are all back up north–and share photos of their gatherings on FB. How cool is that?

L-R, Nick Drizos, Shirley Taradash, Patti Wrobel, Gail Clifton, Brandi Ezell, Monika Templeman at SMART dinner.

Question: What inspired you to embrace such a challenging leadership position? How did you and Gail Clifton coordinate to ensure a smooth leadership transition?

Gail: I had been volunteering with SMART for about 5 years as an instructor and loved everything about it, when in 2004, I was asked to serve as the volunteer ED. It was actually not anything I had ever aspired to–but there was a need and I had the support on the home front to be able to take this on. Luckily, the organization was much smaller back then…so I had lots of time to learn the hows-and-whys of running a not for profit organization! I was also fortunate to have wonderful people in the community that helped to mentor me as we grew—as well as a legion of other volunteers who always had my back and loved the organization as much as I did, and worked as hard as I did. I’m proud of the work we have all accomplished over those many years. Now, as I eagerly look forward to passing the torch, I am so thrilled that Brandi has stepped up to the challenge of leading this organization forward. She and I have worked together for the past 3 years and have a similar work ethic—that being: Work hard until the job is done…and then move on to the next job and work hard some more! I have no doubts that Brandi will continue doing a great job for SMART and provide the leadership, as ED, that the organization needs going forward. We have just a few months remaining in our very smoothly running succession plan…with Brandi stepping into her new role as ED in April!

Brandi: I started as a volunteer and instantly fell in love with the horses, the individuals I got to work with and the other volunteers I got to work beside. When I became the Admin Assistant in 2014, I was able to see a whole other side of the organization and fell in love all over again. I am so excited and honored to be moving into this leadership role for this organization I love so much. I have grown and learned a tremendous amount over the past 3 years—and each day continues to bring new challenges and new rewards. Along with my increased responsibilities as Assistant ED, I have spent the last 6 months training the new Admin Assistant, Dana–and that has been a wonderful process. Dana is becoming a fantastic “right hand woman” and is already a great asset to SMART and to me. Now, I’ll be focusing more of my time on more intensely training for the day to day administrative and compliance work required of the ED. It’s a big job with a lot of responsibility…but much of it is all already familiar to me, on a certain level, since Gail and I have worked so closely together for the past 3 years. I also know I have the support of the entire SMART family—the volunteers, staff and board members—and that feels really great and is making this succession plan so much easier. Gail has been a fantastic mentor and role model. The work she has done with this organization over the last 20 years is remarkable and my hope is to continue to carry on the legacy she has built with the same kind of attention to detail, respect, class and passion that she has.

Question: LWRWC members have expressed interest in becoming more involved in hands-on volunteer opportunities with our adopted 501(c)(3) charities. Please tell us about the types of volunteer work opportunities that are available at SMART and who are members should contact if they are interested in volunteering.

Brandi: SMART is a mostly volunteer powered organization with only three paid employees—so there are lots of volunteer opportunities for everyone. You can volunteer in our weekly therapeutic riding lessons by assisting students and leading horses. Training is provided and there are always opportunities to help with barn work and horse care. If you like to garden, we have a beautiful Sensory Garden that can always use some TLC and flower beds and grass mowing to be done as well as fundraising and administrative tasks. If you are interested in volunteering, you can contact our volunteer-Volunteer Coordinator, Melissa, at melissa@smartriders.org or you can call the office at 941-322-2000. We have volunteer orientations scheduled each month and Melissa works very hard at making sure each new volunteer feels welcome and happy.

Question: What services and programs are offered by SMART? How you are able to offer these services and programs free of charge?

Brandi: At SMART, we offer therapeutic riding, therapeutic carriage driving and equine facilitated learning programs. Group and private lessons are offered six days a week. We also provide special outreach programs to other not for profit organizations and local schools. Field trip opportunities are also scheduled throughout the month. Around 60% of our participants in our weekly program are in need of financial assistance…and we don’t turn anyone away due to financial challenges. We can do this BECAUSE OF YOU! The support of the LWRWC throughout the years has made it possible for us to provide our services to countless individuals who participated in our programs. We also continually work hard to grow our family of supporters, increase our grants income, and increase our events and fundraising efforts. With admin and fundraising costs of just 3%, we can keep the donation and fundraising dollars flowing directly to our SMART participants. That’s why your support has made such a difference–and is so important to all of us at SMART! THANK YOU!

Question: What do you consider to be SMART’s most significant accomplishments?

Gail: From my 20 year perspective, SMART’s most significant accomplishment has been achieving our goal and dream of owning our own home. We tried for years and years and years to make that happen—and each time it didn’t work out— it was devastating. But as they say…the best things happen in their own time. SMART is now located on what, for many years, was just our “pipe dream”! Our lovely, peaceful, 23 acre horse farm is the perfect place for our program—and in the 5 years we have been here, we have experienced extraordinary growth–and happiness!
Brandi: In my three years here, I think watching how much SMART’s signature fundraising event, Mint Juleps & Roses, has grown. The first MJ&R in 2014 netted around 40k and in 2016 MJ&R netted 76K UNBELIEVABLE!!! Celebrating the Kentucky Derby, Florida Style, the evening starts out with a complementary mint julep, opportunities to tour the barns and meet the therapy horses and chances to bid on some pretty fantastic silent auction items. SMART riders participate in a parade of champions demonstrating the SMART program. We have a best hat contest and a best tie contest. Every year the hats get bigger and better and it’s awesome how creative the guys are with their ties. The Run For The Roses can be watched on big screen TVs before having dinner under the white tent. Since SMART is also celebrating 30 years of service, that theme will play a role in this year’s event and our live auction has some exciting and different surprises this time. With the generosity of the MJ&R sponsors, SMART has been able to open the gate, in the past, with the event completely paid for and the entire evening’s donations go directly back into the program. THAT is something to be proud of and a trend we hope to continue this year. This event would NOT be possible without the unwavering dedication and countless hours of our event committee and without the support of the community coming out and sharing an evening with us. This year’s event is on May 6th and if you have not been a part of it in the past, you definitely do not want to miss out this year.

Question: What was your most difficult challenge in 2016?

Brandi: The most difficult challenge faced by our program in 2016 was all of the rain and the extreme heat we dealt with for most of the year. Because our activities all take place in the glorious out of doors—we can become extremely good-weather dependent. An above average number of classes and program days had to be canceled in 2016 due to bad weather conditions. It is very difficult for most of our participants when we have to cancel classes, disrupting their weekly routine, and it definitely affects their progress toward their individual goals. It is also difficult to reschedule special day programs, field trips or our veteran’s program, when we have to cancel due to rain. We need a covered arena! Unfortunately, until that happens, this will continue to be an ongoing challenge. One of our major goals this next year is to launch our “Keep It Cool” campaign and raise the additional funds needed (500K) to cover our arena.

Question: In what ways do you see SMART growing in the next few years?

Brandi: Reaching out to the community and partnering with other not for profits and schools will continue to be our way forward for growth in the coming years. Growing our volunteer base tops the list in importance, as well. We can’t expand our program without the dedicated volunteers to back it. We would also like to get two more certified instructors so that we can manage our long waiting list a bit more efficiently. Getting our main arena covered is a BIG and necessary goal—and an integral part of all of the above. With a covered arena, we would be able to provide a more comfortable work place for our volunteers, staff, riders and horses, have a more consistent class and program schedule, and run our program all year long.

Question: Lakewood Ranch Women’s Club leadership was honored to be included in your wonderful SMART appreciation dinner hosted by the Lake Club on Oct. 8, 2016. We enjoyed meeting many of the fabulous SMART volunteers and representatives from other organizations that partner with SMART. The event was a touching tribute to the teamwork it takes to make a difference in the lives of children and adults with mental, physical and emotional challenges to help them reach their full potential. Please give our members a brief overview of SMART’s extended network (i.e. schools and organizations that work with SMART).

Brandi: We were so happy to have our friends from the LWRWC attend our appreciation dinner. SMART takes pride in being able to partner with many of the other fantastic organizations in our community. We currently team up with Beyond the Spectrum, a school for individuals with Autism, providing them with a weekly program that combines therapeutic horseback riding and other equine facilitated activities. We also partner with Easter Seals in a similar way–and their organic gardeners also come out to help with our new Sensory Garden. We partner with Selah Freedom, providing a weekly program for women who are transitioning out of the human trafficking industry. United Cerebral Palsy (UCP) brings their clients out for a weekly carriage driving program. Monthly, we team up with Bay Pines VA to offer a day workshop for veterans suffering from PTSD. We also offer our Horse Sense Literacy program to fourth graders (Just For Girls Academy, Braden River Elementary, local homeschoolers, etc.) This literacy program is based on a book written about Magic, a SMART horse who is blind. SMART has also partnered with The Haven, Nolan Middle School, Lakewood Ranch High School and Southeast High School for many years, providing fun field trips throughout the year. This past summer we were thrilled to team up with Jewish Family and Children’s Service. They brought out their middle school summer camp kids who were interested in going into the healthcare field. We had the opportunity to teach these kids different aspects of equine assisted therapies and not for profit work. SMART is also an approved provider for onsite clinical fieldwork for OTA students at Polk State College and an approved agency providing clinical facilities for health care for nursing students from Keiser University.

Question: In addition to monetary donations, LWRWC has been giving our adopted charities “donations in kind” to help with critical needs. Have these contributions been beneficial? What types of donated items does SMART need the most?

Brandi: YES! Every donation is a big deal and very beneficial. We hear a lot of, “We only brought…” It’s important to us that you know SMART appreciates ALL of it. We have a Dream list and Wish list on our website, www.smartiders.org. The lists are broken down from big ticket items, to needs per program, to daily needs for the farm, the horses and our volunteers. Cases of water are always appreciated so we can keep our volunteers and instructors hydrated and you have no idea how excited we get over things like paper towels, trash bags and vegetable oil.

Question: What do you like best about partnering with our LWR Women’s Club?

Gail and Brandi: Our partnership with the LWRWC goes all the way back to 2001 and has been one of the most treasured relationships we have had over the many years. When we first started receiving support from the LWRWC, SMART was serving only around 33 children and adults, had a few horses and was nestled into a big cow pasture! Look how far we have come! We now have a home of our own, serve nearly 700 individuals each year and have 14 horses and real horse barns (and real bathrooms, too!) The annual support of the LWRWC, and your belief in our mission, has played a BIG part in our success over the years. After all, over the past 16 years, we have received over $128,000!! WOW! All of you have such big hearts and your commitment to the organizations you choose to support is unbelievable. It’s fascinating to see all of the creative ideas that you ladies come up with when you do your fundraising and we LOVE the posters that are created each year designating your raised funds. The turnout at your events is always impressive. The excitement is infectious and usually includes lots of smiles, laughter and hugging. We are so very, very grateful to be a part of the Lakewood Ranch Women’s Club charities!!!