CHESAPEAKE, Va. (WAVY) — The idea to help veterans has been a passion of Kayla Arestivo’s, since one of the darkest days in American history: Sept. 11, 2001.
“My father passed away on 9/11. So I saw firsthand the experiences of terrorism and what that can do to a family,” Arestivo, 26, said.
Arestivo believes what she felt in the aftermath of the terrorist attacks must pale in comparison to what a veteran who comes face-to-face with an enemy must feel.
“I decided a long time ago I wasn’t going to allow another family member, another American, walk that alone,” Arestivo said.
It’s why in March, she and her husband Kyle founded Trails of Purpose. It’s a 501c3 nonprofit charitable organization that aims to create a comfortable gathering place for veterans who can find therapy through a connection with horses.
“A lot of our service members are overcoming traumatic brain injuries or other … combat injuries,” Arestivo said. “So, to see that physical peace where they are working with the horse, it’s therapeutic because a horse is large. You have to be up and about and moving. Something as simple as grooming a horse … is physical and mental therapy.”
She said horses and combat veterans have a lot more in common than one might think. Horses are prey animals, in that they are constantly on alert. If they sense danger, they run.
“A lot of our American service members are trained the same way … those who suffer from [post-traumatic stress disorder] have the same kind of reactions and instincts. I just saw the coolest connection between the horse,” Arestivo said.
The two horses and one miniature horse at Arestivo’s farm are all rescues. Once a week, classes are held where veterans — many of whom are wheelchair bound — will either perform simple tasks with the horse or just feed them some treats. The veterans do not ride the horses.
She said the activities are ultimately therapeutic for her, too.
“One of my youngest participants, he was severely injured in the Middle East,” Arestivo said. “He is also nonverbal… He came here for the first time … they rolled him out of his (handicapped) van … and he lit up. He just looked around … and he gave me a big old smile. I looked over at his mom and she started tearing up. I was like ‘What’s going on?” She said ‘He hasn’t smiled in a year.’ And like that to me… I don’t need any other proof.”
Trails of Purpose is completely volunteer and donation-driven. They never charge.
Arestivo said while they are always are looking for more volunteers, it is their capital campaign that is their current focus.
The hope is to raise $1.5 million to acquire 30 acres of land in a sprawling and secluded area of southern Virginia Beach. They want to build a facility solely for the program. Plans are for the space to have a horse barn, a retreat center, counseling offices, lounge space, miles of wooded trails, gardens and plenty of room for outdoor activities.
The new facility will help more veterans be seen.
“If we can do that and we can rally around our veterans as a community … we could change the world,” Arestivo said.
Giving can be done through the group’s “Partner With Us” section or by sending a check to Trails of Purpose P.O. Box 6163, Chesapeake, Va., 23323.