For Good: Local visionary takes leap with equine therapy

Edie Dopking has worn many hats in her lifetime.

And they are as numerous as they are diverse: a medical imaging technologist, a partner in a successful MRI center, a student with undergrad and advanced degrees in nuclear medicine technology, human development and aging studies, an accomplished equestrian in both English and Western riding, a stepmom, a compassionate community volunteer.

But perhaps the most fulfilling and public one is the cowboy hat she wears at Quantum Leap Farm in Odessa, the comprehensive equine therapies and retreat center she founded in 2000. What began as a grassroots operation is now serving clients throughout the Tampa Bay area and as far away as Hawaii.
“I knew the need for something just like this was out there,” says Dopking, a graduate of Eckerd College in St. Petersburg. “Did I imagine it would grow this fast and reach this far? Never. This has been an amazing journey.”

The idea for the farm came out of her volunteer work with the Bakas Equestrian Center, a therapeutic riding program in Tampa that serves disabled children. A naturally curious person, Dopking began to investigate the physical and psychosocial benefits of equine therapy for disabled adults for her dissertation in University of South Florida’s Aging Studies PhD program. Her research and personal experience gave her a multitude of reasons to believe just how powerful a role a horse can play in restoring functional mobility to boosting the spirits of a person emotionally shattered by a debilitating injury or afflicted with mental disabilities.

Dopking already had three horses and the Odessa property, which she turned into a boarding co-op with a few girlfriends so they could share the manual labor and costs of horse ownership. And she had money in the bank from selling her medical imaging center to a public company. Now with her attention turned toward finishing her doctorate, it seemed like the perfect time to lay the groundwork and invest in a new adventure. She chose the name Quantum Leap, a play on words that combined both her medical background and her love of horsemanship.

“It’s a metaphor for nerving up to the next order of magnitude,” Dopking says with a laugh. “Sometimes you just have to move forward boldly, even if you don’t have a totally clear view of what comes next.”

In the beginning, the program was just three days a week, a few horses, fellow equestrians who shared her passion and a handful of students offering assistance. Nearly 80 clients from Hillsborough, Pasco and Pinellas counties came out to the farm that first year of operation for therapeutic horse riding. By last year, that number had grown to 1,500 – using just under 5,000 units of half-hour services, ranging from kinesthetic therapy to carriage driving overseen by a fulltime and part-time staff of 13 and 600 volunteers. The farm has also evolved into a popular venue rental, and is available for free group tours.

Serving a diverse population

As the demand grows to provide recreational therapy to persons with disabilities and illnesses, so has Dopking’s vision for the farm. Clients range from an 18-month-old toddler to a 92-year-old man, and now includes family members as well.
“Most equine-therapy programs just focus on the people with the disabilities, but when something like this happens, it affects the whole clan. So the farm has evolved into a place to bring families together,” Dopking notes. Several times a year, Quantum Leap hosts Family Fun Days for specialized populations such as military families or those affected by cancer, offering free riding, food and kids’ activities.

Like many nonprofits, Quantum Leap depends mightily on the kindnesses of others, starting with its founder. Dopking donated the 10-acre rural property she bought in 1991 to the program, freeing up money to lease an additional surrounding 10 acres.

The yearly budget is about $800,000, mainly from grants and foundations, individual and corporate donors, and multiple sponsors who pitch in to pay the estimated $10,000 yearly upkeep for each of the farm’s 13 horses.

And its main fundraiser – a charity golf tournament now in its 14th year -- is set for Friday, Nov. 7, at Innisbrook Resort and Golf Club in Palm Harbor. There are still openings for players and sponsors. To learn more or to register, visit the Quantum Leap Farm website. In 2013, the event raised $125,000, so Dopking has set the goal even higher this year. First on the list of needs: a new $10,000 lift to help disabled clients mount the horses.

With expenses such as the rising cost of insurance, hiring specially trained professionals and farm upkeep, Dopking estimates the actual cost of a session runs about $150. Clients pay $35 – and only if they can afford it. Many depend on rider scholarships provided by donors.

“No one gets turned away,” she emphasizes. She also is committed to making sure the farm outlasts her. While it manages to meet its budget every year, there’s no extra funds for emergency expenses or to ensure its long-term viability. Her plan is to encourage endowments that would keep the farm running long after she’s gone. She frequently relies on her biggest supporter – her husband of 17 years, Al Dopking, a Citigroup executive with a “good head for finances.”
“I can’t be mucking the stables and running the business at the same time,” she says. “I know where my strengths are. And he’s been with me every step of the way. Since we live right on the property, it’s as much his life as it is mine. I’m not sure he quite knew what he was getting into when we married, but he’s been wonderful.”

The mission is personal too

Just how life-changing are equine encounters for those with physical challenges? Dopking has seen it in her own 33-year-old stepdaughter, who has special needs, including cerebral palsy. She comes to the farm for riding nearly every Saturday. And then there’s Mark Lalli, 28, who says he’s gone from hopeless and depressed to having a purpose and a cheerful heart as a direct result of his involvement at Quantum Leap.

He went into the Army right after high school because of 9-11, determined to be part of the response to the direct attack on America. But things went horribly wrong in 2007, when the Blackhawk helicopter he served on as a crew member crashed in Italy. Several of his fellow soldiers did not survive, leaving him with a guilt complex that ate at him for years.

If that anguish wasn’t enough, Lalli had devastating injuries that would require two years of hospitalization in civil facilities and two VA institutions: 24 broken bones, collapsed lungs, numerous internal injuries and severe brain trauma. After a long rehabilitative stint at James A. Haley Veteran’s Hospital in Tampa, he was released as an outpatient in a nearby apartment. There he spent endless hours watching TV and eating junk food.

“I had no interest in engaging with the rest of the world,” says Lalli, who still uses a wheelchair due to balance issues.
Looking for some kind of meaningful outlet, he began to do public speaking for the Wounded Warriors Project. He came to Quantum Leap on an engagement two years ago – and everything changed. 

“I grew up watching John Wayne movies, but I never was much of a horse guy,” he says. “Yet I came to this place and saw the joy in the faces of people who never imagined they could have such freedom again. And that’s when I knew I wanted to be part of this operation.”

Today, Lalli is one of the farm’s financial supporters, giving generous donations and sponsoring Sonic, an Appaloosa quarter horse he rides at least once a week as part of the therapeutic program. He also serves on the board of directors and as the in-house volunteer photographer, capturing heartfelt images of the clients and their horse companions.
“I’ve seen a half a dozen psychologists since the accident, and I can tell you none of that therapy compares to one hour on the back of Sonic,” he says. “He’s helped put everything back in rhythm in my life again. This place is the best medicine I ever got.”

And it also has given him a future he never thought possible after that devastating accident. On the first day he visited the farm, he met a young woman who was also serving as a volunteer. Love blossomed, and next May, he will marry Margo Rice of New Tampa, who is working with military veterans while completing her master’s degree in social work at the University of South Carolina. 

Picking their wedding location was a no-brainer.

“We’ll be married right here at the farm, where it all began,” Lalli smiles broadly. “With my dog Rojo as the ring bearer and Sonic right there with us.”

Falling in love with the place

There are countless stories like Lalli’s, which is one of the many reasons retired insurance executive Bill Crowder sits on the nonprofit’s board of directors. He grew up on three acres in south Tampa riding hunters and jumpers, so he’s always had horses in his blood. But it’s the human component at Quantum Leap Farm -- serving people with a wide range of functional abilities -- that made him fall in love with the place. He is particularly touched by the impact equine therapy has on disabled veterans.

“You see the transformation in people who were once able-bodied and strong, and now are struggling with disabilities. You see how they learn to trust themselves again and overcome that feeling of helplessness,” Crowder says. “The farm gives them a safe haven of possibilities, and a release from pent-up frustration and anger they were feeling because of the unexpected circumstances that changed their lives.”

Though he acknowledges that the farm’s mission would not be possible without its dedicated army of volunteers, its small and dedicated staff, and a continued community support, Crowder says none of this would be possible without its visionary leader.

“Edie is remarkable,” he says. “She’s into that farm 110 percent, working six days a week. She’s a good judge of people and horses, and knows how to match them up so they benefit each other. I’m in awe of what she’s accomplished. She’s a real treasure to this community.”

Michelle Bearden is a freelance writer who lives in the Ballast Point neighborhood of Tampa and owns two horses. She covers nonprofits, philanthropy and stories of people making a difference in the Tampa Bay region. Comments? Contact 83 Degrees.

Read more articles by Michelle Bearden.

Michelle Bearden is a feature writer at 83 Degrees Media in the Tampa Bay region of Florida.
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