Andrew Briz produced this update.
Travis Harvey leaned his elbows on the wooden fence and let out a shrill whistle. In the back of the pasture, three horses turned their heads, but only one came trotting to greet him — Starlight, a 19-year-old Appaloosa.
“This is our lover right here,” Harvey said. “She’s one of my favorites.”
Starlight is one of nine horses that work at the nonprofit HOrses Helping PEople, or HOPE. The horses act as therapy animals for people with disabilities, special needs children and veterans with post-traumatic stress disorder.
HOPE, founded in 2000, debuted a program on February 9 to complement its existing Wednesday sessions. As always, its gates are open to anyone who needs help.
“Horses are kind of empathetic,” Harvey said. “Here, you’re talking about unconditional love. It’s giving people the opportunity to work out their patience issues. They don’t have to worry about a horse betraying them like people do.”
Harvey, 39, has personally benefited from Horses Helping Heroes, a program catered to veterans’ needs. He was wounded in Iraq in 2003 after a mortar landed 15 feet away from him, blowing shrapnel into both of his legs and his left arm. He spent a year and a half recovering in a military hospital.
After recovery, he spent 10 years shuffling from job to job. It was difficult for Harvey to balance work with appointments at the Department of Veterans Affairs and therapy. He started his sessions at HOPE last May and stayed on as a volunteer coordinator.
By late November, Harvey learned so much and grew so attached to the horses that he stayed on as HOPE’s executive director. His responsibilities range from administrative work that keeps the organization running to leading veterans classes.
“They’ve got a saying with horses: ‘it happens when it happens,’” Harvey said. “If you’re trying to teach a horse to do a trick, it’ll happen when it happens, and you can’t force them or get angry with them. It’s the same with veterans.”
He said being a veteran makes it easier for him to connect with others and help them through their own healing processes. Some come from the HONOR center, which provides services for homeless veterans. Others like Harvey come from The Mission Continues, a program that empowers veterans struggling with reintegration into society.
Veterans are paired with a horse of their choice for the duration of their free 10-week program. They learn how to groom, lead and eventually ride their horses through obstacles and around paddocks.
Most of the horses were donated after retirement. There is no application process for the veterans, but the number of horses dictates how many can participate.
Every horse is different. They range from fuzzy, brown-and-white miniatures like Rocky to huge Clydesdale look-alikes such as Belle, a retired police horse. Every veteran is different too.
“To be honest, for the last nine years, I did everything possible to forget I was ever in the military,” said Glenn Rodriguez, who served in Iraq from 2002 to 2005. “This program has gotten me more in touch with the positive attributes that I got from the military and taught me to be proud of myself again.”
When Rodriguez returned from his service, the 32-year-old suffered from depression and PTSD. He said it has taken him 10 years of recovery to decide he would like to go back to school and become a therapist. He volunteers at HOPE every chance he gets.
“There’s a feeling that is pretty indescribable about riding a horse when you are in sync with it,” he said. “The communication, the energy. It’s very much serenity.”
Harvey and the rest of the HOPE team are working to expand the veterans program.
Dr. Anthony Mancuso, who in 2004 donated the 40 acres of land HOPE uses, also donated $10,000 in December so HOPE could set up an employment plan for those who complete their therapy.
“Once they come out of their shell and feel comfortable, then the next thing they want in their reintegration is a paycheck,” said Mancuso, a radiologist at UF Health.
Mancuso said the goal is to get the continuum funded then try to implement an employment model.
“It’s a different war,” he said.
Mancuso said horses have a unique sensitivity that lets them understand when a person is not fully physically or mentally capable.
“Somehow they can sense people who need to be part of the herd,” he said.
It takes some veterans longer than others to get used to working with 1,500-pound animals. HOPE, Harvey said, allows veterans to heal at their own pace by working together with horses on establishing trust, communication, patience and understanding.
Michael Morgan, a 53-year-old U.S. Navy veteran, said he grew up on a farm with horses. At one point, he was sleeping in Tent City — an area in Gainesville that once housed many of the city’s homeless people — without a tarp to cover him.
He credits the VA with helping him get back on his feet. He now has his own apartment and just started his first session at HOPE, Morgan said.
“I get to spend time with animals I haven’t spent time with in years,” Morgan said, stroking the broad, brown neck of an Appaloosa named Lila.
“It feels like home,” he said softly. “It feels like home.”
The NCAA released a report Friday concerning an infraction investigation of the University of Florida’s former wide receivers coach Joker Phillips.
On Jan. 23, 2014, Phillips met with a prospective student-athlete at his high school, which violates NCAA bylaws that prevent interaction before July 1, after the prospect’s junior year.
UF began investigating in June, and after two years on the coaching staff, Phillips resigned June 11 at the request of the university.
UF will not receive any penalties because of steps the institution took once the claim was brought to its attention, according to the NCAA report .
“That is why we took quick and decisive action after we learned of a recruiting contact rule violation involving one of our assistant football coaches in January 2014,” UF Athletic Association Athletics Director Jeremy Foley wrote in a statement.
Phillips had a contact who connected him with prospective students and who also contacted Phillips the day he talked to the student.
No further penalties are warranted against Phillips, who is now the wide receivers coach for the NFL’s Cleveland Browns, according to the report.
The 12-page document said the meetings between the student-athlete and Phillips gave Florida a recruiting advantage.
“We stopped recruiting the involved student-athlete, we removed the assistant coach from all recruiting activities, and later secured his resignation,” Foley wrote.
A freeze warning is in effect throughout North Central Florida this week and is expected to last through Friday night. Blue Grotto Farm is planning to protect its crops with water from its on-site spring.
Blue Grotto Spring has been operating as a dive resort in Williston for about 50 years. The spring’s clear water and steady 72-degree temperature allows the farm to produce year-round, said owner Dave Myler.
Myler bought the property as an investment in August 2013 and established a hydroponic farm: a method of growing plants without soil.
Instead, the farm’s crops thrive in volcanic rock that has been heated and expanded like popcorn, known as perlite, that acts as an alternative to soil.
The farm uses water pumped from an underwater cave in Blue Grotto Spring. The water is assessed by a computer, enhanced with nutrients and sent through a system of tubes to efficiently spray the plants.
After a period of experimentation and some setbacks, Blue Grotto Farm sold its first large harvest of lettuce last week to a wholesaler.
The farm covers more than half an acre and has about 23,000 plants, Myler said. Of the 18,000 heads of lettuce, about 3,000 will be harvested each week. Tomatoes, cucumbers and herbs are also growing rapidly.
Myler said he will expand his hydroponic operation by one acre and will be adding space for free-range chickens, beehives and berries.
By this fall, the expansion will be well underway and Blue Grotto Farm will offer a prepaid produce plan to customers who will receive fresh produce from the farm each week for 20 weeks.
To ensure the plants survive the cold weather, several different methods are used.
The lettuce is sprayed with water and protected by a layer of ice. The ice keeps the lettuce at 32 degrees even when outside temperatures and wind may be significantly lower.
About 1,000 tomato plants grow in tarp-covered tunnels, which trap some heat. The seedlings and herbs in the greenhouse are safe and sound under bright, warm lights. The lights are kept on 24/7 regardless of weather.
Marvin Botts, Blue Grotto’s hydroponics manager, said the first step when faced with a dangerous frost is filling the pots with spring water. He even pours water on the ground to create a warm mist that heats the air in the tomato tunnels.
Botts created a geothermal heat exchange unit to also aid in heating. He said the device acts like a car radiator. Spring water is poured into coils, and a fan blows the warm air rising from the coils into the tomato tunnels. When the temperature drops to 20 degrees or below with wind chill, a propane heater is used as a last resort.
Botts said the hydroponics operation, combined with spring water, produces healthy plants without interference from pests and with little waste.
Myler and Botts hope to fully automate the watering system and create a way to reclaim the water to eliminate waste entirely.
Botts said he avoids synthetic nutrients, but the nutrients added to the water are inorganic, like phosphorous and nitrogen. He hopes to design a system to process organic matter — like cow manure — on the farm to make the produce completely organic.
“It’s not organic in the strictest sense, but it is natural in the strictest sense,” Botts said.
Ben Collingsworth, the farm’s hydroponics technician, said it takes about 12 days for a seed to become a plant. After three weeks in the greenhouse, lettuce is transplanted to hydroponic towers. After another six weeks, the lettuce is ready to be harvested.
Most of what Myler has learned about hydroponic farming he has learned on the job. He started the farm early last year but had to completely restart the project in October after insects, fungus and poor planting conditions ruined the crops.
Collingsworth was there through it all. He said the process was intimidating, but he was optimistic for the future.
Now, he said, “Things are looking up.”
Gainesville police were hard at work Wednesday planting a garden for the people living at GRACE Marketplace. Different organizations in the community donated materials to start and maintain the garden, which will provide food and activities for the homeless residents.
A study done by the National Sleep Foundation found that sleep is a low priority for college students. The organization recommends people between the ages of 18 to 25 get about nine hours of sleep.
Greenberry Taylor permalink
Florida coach Billy Donovan argues a call during a matchup against Vanderbilt.
Vanderbilt's Damian Jones (30) shows emotion after a dunk in the first half.
Greenberry Taylor / WUFT News permalink
Florida's Chris Walker (23) blocks Vanderbilt's James Siakam (35) shot.