PINELLAS PARK, Fla. — Nestled past the hustle and bustle of Pinellas Park is a farm hoping to make a difference in many lives in Tampa Bay.
"You've probably heard it before, but horses are really a mirror of your emotions," explained Lesley Mastalerz, Founder of Freedom Farm Tampa Bay.
You'd never know you were in the heart of Pinellas Park. The dirt road, the horse trail, the quiet. It's a serene place to forget all of life's troubles.
"So our goal was to provide a space where veterans and first responders could decompress. And rather than try to accomplish therapy in a confined space, where they maybe weren't ready to share their thoughts and feelings, to be outdoors and in nature, and to allow just a natural decompression prior to even starting therapy was the goal," said Mastalerz.
Mastalerz is a veteran herself and knows the struggles veterans and their families go through. Her brother, Christopher Scott Hopkins, also a veteran, died by suicide after a battle with PTSD.
Her horse, Dakota, helped her get through some of her own struggles.
"So if, during my grieving process over my brother, I had a rough day. And I'd go out to the barn. And I could feel myself letting that emotion settle. And as I settled, Dakota would settle, so essentially, he mirrors what the person he's with his feeling," Mastalerz said.
That's when she envisioned this sanctuary. A place where veterans and law enforcement officers, and their families, can come to get therapy with horses.
"We also want to be available for family of veterans and first responders that struggle with PTSD. Mainly, in my life, in my experience, even with my brother, the family is very much affected just as much as the veteran in different ways, of course. But we do want to offer services to those that are caretakers for the veterans as well," Mastalerz said.
Riding one of their horses is not part of the therapy. Instead, it's the interaction with the horse with a mental health professional that can prove to be life-changing.
"So a lot of times when the soldiers or veterans come back, there's no sort of outlet to talk about that or to work through some of those issues. And that's what we hope to offer here. With the help of our horses, and ourselves, that's our goal," explained licensed mental health therapist, Kim Hughes.
Together the two will provide the specialized therapy that they've seen have an impact firsthand.
"We had an opportunity to be able to experience what it was like to be in the arena with the horses, even bringing our own issues. And again, we were not sure, but there was some element of magic that happened between what our experience was as we mimic what our life was inside the arena or the pin, using props in the horses, and played that out. And all of a sudden, things just sort of started shifting and emotions started emerging," says Hughes.
If you or someone you know would benefit from the Freedom Farm of Tampa Bay, click here for more information.