Chelsea Harden: Reaching Kids With Special Needs

Chelsea Harden and her horses create magical spaces where kids with special needs can connect and learn. Learn about her journey starting and running The H.E.A.R.T. Center, where she offers therapeutic riding lessons to children with physical, emotional and behavioral challenges.

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Chelsea Harden – The H.E.A.R.T Center – Phoenix, AZ

SOT: OK, ready? Take me there. I love how you looked first.

Chelsea: For a child with special needs it’s not easy. They need to be in an environment that is accepting of them and that is receptive to their way of learning. Learning how to count, learning how to identify facial expressions,

SOT: I’m proud of you for sitting up so tall.

Chelsea: Something as simple as that is not going to be as easily transferable for them as it might be if they’re learning it on the scene.

TEXT: Chelsea Harden – Founder + CEO - The H.E.A.R.T Center – Phoenix, Ariz. USA

Chelsea: HEART stands for Harden Education and Recreation Therapy center. The Center is really about using horses as a modality to encourage individuals with disabilities and special needs, to find something that makes them feel empowered, and happy, and gives them a purpose.

TEXT: Chelsea grew up in southern California and loved horses from an early age.

Chelsea: I started riding when I turned nine. And in high school I had come across a therapeutic riding program, I got involved as a volunteer on the weekends. I was able to spend all morning working with the instructors and the kids and then in the afternoons we would pack a lunch and we’d go on a trail ride and enjoy riding for fun.

TEXT: In 2007, Chelsea moved to Phoenix to study journalism at Arizona State University.

Chelsea: I was really missing the horses and the kids and then I found the recreation therapy program. And as soon as I walked into my advisor’s office I was like, “Well, I know I’m home. [CHUCKLES] I don’t ever have to go anywhere else. This is what I’m meant to be doing.” [CHUCKLES]

TEXT: In addition to her classes, Chelsea began working at a therapeutic riding program associated with Arizona State.

Chelsea: I got to learn a lot about the horse world and the therapy world, coaching and counseling, and… team building. It was great. I was able to apply practical application to everything that I was learning in school.

TEXT: Chelsea graduated in 2012. Two years later she married her college boyfriend, Bill Harden.
After 7 years of working in the field, she felt ready to start the H.E.A.R.T Center.

Chelsea: It was time for me to go out on my own and I really wanted to grow this into more of a school type environment that will allow us to run a variety of support programs like occupational therapy, physical therapy, speech therapy.

TEXT: Chelsea raised start-up funds from former clients.

Chelsea: The biggest challenge for me was learning the aspects of business structure and growth. I understand and can assist in all of the business aspects but I know that my strengths lie in the arena. And that’s where my focuses are. So, right now it’s been Bill my husband who’s been managing the, the day-to-day aspects of making sure that, you know, that the lights stay on [CHUCKLES], and that the horses are fed, and that everybody’s paid.

TEXT: Chelsea now has 4 horses and several volunteers.
They work with 40-50 students a week, children with Down’s Syndrome, autism and physical disabilities.

Chelsea: Horses are great for teaching a lot of the basic emotional coping skills. Students are able to try new things with the horses such as getting their horse to go whether it’s walk, or trot, or turn, or complete a course or a pattern, whatever that might be, they go through a whole series of emotions [CHUCKLES] and the work that we do to process that then allows them to transfer those emotional skills, such as being able to go into school and feeling what their body feels like when it’s frustrated and noticing that my fists clench, or I get shivery, and they can then express it to a teacher and say, “Hey, I need a break or I might throw this chair.” [CHUCKLES].

TEXT: In 2016, HEART’s second year, annual revenue was $90,000. Chelsea is actively looking to hire her first full-time instructor.

Chelsea: I love how much I learn from all of the, the students and the people that I interact with and it just taught me so much about what it means to communicate from the heart and communicate through intention and patience.

SOT: Alena: Four, Five
Chelsea: That was such great talking, Alena. I love hearing your voice.

Chelsea: It keeps me very fulfilled and, and I feel like this is my purpose and this is what I’m supposed to be doing and I couldn’t imagine doing anything else [CHUCKLES].

Posted: June 27, 2017

Nusha Balyan at The Story ExchangeChelsea Harden: Reaching Kids With Special Needs