Hun­dreds from JEWISHColorado see char­ity work as “a way of giv­ing back”

The Denver Post - - FRONT PAGE - By Brian Ea­son

While mil­lions awoke to presents un­der the tree, Lisa Siegel spent her Christ­mas morn­ing … well, per­haps it’s best to let her ex­plain.

“It’s pri­mar­ily, for want of a bet­ter word, it’s poop. It’s horse poop and cow poop,” Siegel said. “We’ve been clean­ing up the pas­tures.”

Not that she’s com­plain­ing. She signed up for this, as one of the more than 300 JEWISHColorado vol­un­teers scat­tered at 17 sites across the Den­ver area on Christ­mas.

“We do this so that the other peo­ple that cel­e­brate other hol­i­days can spend time with their fam­i­lies,” said Su­san Chayet, a spokes­woman for the group. “It’s a way of giv­ing back.”

Siegel and nine oth­ers spent Christ­mas morn­ing at Zuma’s Res­cue Ranch in Lit­tle­ton, pick­ing up what the an­i­mals left be­hind. Oth­ers lent a hand at hos­pi­tals, nurs­ing homes and shel­ters as part of JEWISHColorado’s an­nual Christ­mas Mitz­vah char­ity event.

“We tend to be home. So rather than just sit at home and eat Chi­nese food and go to the movies — we’ll be do­ing that later — but this way we can help the com­mu­nity,” Siegel said. “Our Chris­tian friends, they want to be home with their fam­i­lies.”

Siegel and her group of vol­un­teers were as­signed to a horse res­cue, founded by Paul and Jodi Messenich. They adopt horses that were abused, as well as some that be­longed to fam­i­lies that sim­ply couldn’t af­ford to keep them.

The res­cue was named af­ter their daugh­ter’s late horse, Zuma, who was wild and hard to con­trol when they adopted her.

“The train­ers wouldn’t han­dle her. Ev­ery­one told me to put her

down, she was dan­ger­ous,” Jodi Messenich said. “And I wasn’t go­ing to give up. When I take some­thing into my home, it’s a fam­ily mem­ber.”

Af­ter a year and a half, Zuma came around; their daugh­ter even­tu­ally was able to ride her at com­pe­ti­tions.

Work­ing with Zuma, Jodi said, “trans­formed a cor­po­rate, work­ing fam­ily” into some­thing else. When they got the ranch, they had planned to board show horses. But af­ter Zuma died, they adopted seven res­cues. And things snow­balled from there. To­day, the ranch is typ­i­cally home to 40 horses at a time.

And it’s be­come much more than a haven for ne­glected an­i­mals. In 2008, the cou­ple part­nered with the Uni­ver­sity of Den­ver to pro­vide an­i­mal-as­sisted ther­apy to at-risk kids with men­tal dis­or­ders. Now they see 20 to 30 kids a week.

“They have sim­i­lar sto­ries of aban­don­ment and ne­glect and (post-trau­matic stress dis­or­der),” Jodi Messenich said. “The horses have been abused, the kids have been abused. So the kids re­ally grav­i­tate to­ward these horses.”

Soon, they will add adults to their prac­tice — veter­ans who suf­fer from PTSD. That’s a group that’s close to Jodi’s heart. Her fa­ther, a World War II and Korean War vet­eran, was thrown from a tank by a land mine on one tour of duty. His foot was blown off. His fel­low sol­diers were killed.

Back in the U.S., Jodi had to wake up her fa­ther with a broom­stick; she was scared to get too close, be­cause “he would deck you.”

“I think once you’ve seen it, it’s hard to look the other way,” Paul Messenich said.

With the kids, they use the horses to cre­ate stress­ful con­di­tions in a safe en­vi­ron­ment. That’s some­thing they be­lieve they can repli­cate with veter­ans who suf­fer from sim­i­lar men­tal dis­or­ders.

“It gives you an op­por­tu­nity to give them skills to deal with it, when they’re ac­tu­ally ex­pe­ri­enc­ing an is­sue,” he said. Through ther­apy, they can con­nect synapses in the brain — help them learn how to cope with stress in a pos­i­tive man­ner.

“It’s all made pos­si­ble with groups like the group that’s out here to­day,” Jodi Messenich said. “If the com­mu­nity didn’t come in, sup­port and vol­un­teer and help off­set my staffing costs, we could never do it.”

Jared Siegel, 17, mucks a pad­dock with his mother, Lisa Siegel, 51, at Zuma’s Res­cue Ranch in Lit­tle­ton. The Siegels and other vol­un­teers were part of Sun­day’s Mitz­vah Project on Christ­mas Day. Andy Col­well, Spe­cial The Den­ver Post

Andy Col­well, Spe­cial to The Den­ver Post

Ta­mar Gold­berg-But­ler, 7, of Au­rora, re­acts to a kiss from Jack, a 4-year-old res­cued mus­tang, while Ta­mar and her fam­ily vol­un­teered with the Christ­mas Mitz­vah Project at Zuma’s Res­cue Ranch in Lit­tle­ton.

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