In 2013, Vietnam veteran, Dennis Bigelow and his wife of 43 years, Becki, poured their life savings into a horse ranch that would change the lives of many. Today, Reining Liberty Ranch serves as an 11-acre home-away-from-home for veterans suffering from post traumatic stress disorder. Each year, this unique non-profit organization provides healing for dozens of veterans and their families—as well as special-needs kids and at-risk teens—by helping them build powerful relationships with horses. Programs such as natural horsemanship and therapeutic riding are designed to foster improved physical, relational and emotional health. “At the beginning of the program, I was at my worst,” claims one veteran participant who, before learning about the ranch, had been fighting a losing battle with anxiety. “The timing couldn’t have been better. This farm became my sanctuary.”
To see Dennis working the ranch, you’d think he grew up on one. In reality, it’s Becki who’s had the life-long obsession with horses. As her father was a World War II veteran, Becki experienced many difficulties growing up. She looked to her horse, Spindle, for comfort. “I discovered a powerful connection between human and horse, and I just always knew others could find comfort and healing by bonding with these amazing animals,” she explains with youthful enthusiasm. It took a few months for Becki to convince her husband that they should buy the ranch, but as Dennis wholeheartedly agrees, it was well worth the wait: “This place doesn’t just help others. It’s changed me, too.”
Along with their dedicated volunteers, Dennis and Becki keep Reining Liberty Ranch operating year-round. Now retired, Becki is still an early riser who handles everything from veteran affairs to bookkeeping. Dennis, on the other hand, works full time as a computer programmer. So for him, working the ranch isn’t just a labor of love, it’s literally his second full-time job. Mark Girardin, Dennis’ coworker and nominator, sees first hand his exhaustive efforts. “He works the ranch before coming into work, sometimes over lunch, and then again before retiring for the night.”
Thanks to Mark’s heartfelt nomination, Dennis was selected from thousands of submissions as the final recipient of The Gift Back Project. Dennis received an award of $15,000, just a small gift in recognition of the huge difference he, Becki, the volunteers, and their 10 healing horses are making in their community. A true model of selflessness, Dennis plans to use the money toward several updates that will make the ranch an even more inviting place for veterans and others in need.
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