Helping others…by giving her time

Published 12:00 am Wednesday, May 3, 2000

ERIK SANZENBACH / L’Observateur / May 3, 2000

LAPLACE – When Melissa Sanchez first applied for a grant at Youth Services America, her motives were fairly altruistic.

Sure she wanted to get some money to help out her favorite organization, the Greater New Orleans Therapeutic Riding Center in LaPlace. But she alsowanted to do something nice for her boyfriend’s sister. The winner of thegrant would get two free tickets to the Backstreet Boys concert in the Louisiana Superdome and Sanchez knew that her friend would just love to go to the concert.

So, Sanchez, a junior at Hahnville High School, and a member of the junior ROTC and the local 4-H club wrote a proposal for the grant. She told thegrant committee that she would use the money to build a wheelchair ramp, a bathroom for the disabled and over 700 feet of fencing at the therapeutic riding center.

The riding center is a non-profit organization located on the east end of LaPlace. At the center, horse-back riding is used as a form of physical andmental therapy to help all sorts of people with disabilities. Children withspinal bifida, autism and cerebral palsy all seem to benefit greatly from an hour in the saddle of a gently walking horse.

Sanchez got interested in the riding center after doing a 4-H project on the center the year before.

“I never knew this place existed,” said Sanchez, “and after working out here once, I really wanted to help out.”Because the riding center depended on money from outside sources, Sanchez knew that the grant would greatly help out. There was a much-neededwheelchair ramp to build so that disabled people could mount the horses easier. There were no real bathroom facilities, and Sanchez had a plan toturn an old tack room into a handicapped bathroom. Finally, much of thepasture land at the center was not fenced-in and the horses needed a place to graze and run around in, so Sanchez drew up plans to fence off most of the land to form two pastures.

It took Sanchez over six months to write up the plans and the grant proposal. Then one night, around 10:30, the Youth Service America peoplecalled up with the good news.

Sanchez’ mother, Erith Sanchez said, “I was so shocked when she won, and I was really proud of her.”With the $2,000 grant, Sanchez bought wood, concrete, and rented out a gas-powered auger to drill post holes. She called for volunteers at herschool and early one Saturday afternoon, she gathered her forces and got to work.

With the help of several school friends, her parents and two uncles, Sanchez was a bundle of energy, running from the fence project, then over to her uncle who was trying to make sense of the blueprints for the wheelchair ramp. She helped her friends handle the auger, put up fence posts andgenerally supervised all the ongoing projects while trying to keep out of the way of the therapeutic horse-riding sessions that were going on at the same time.

Sanchez had set a goal of finishing the ramp, the fence and the bathroom by the end of the weekend. Except for the bathroom, which was waiting on thecement, everything else was completed by Sunday evening.

Sanchez looked around at all the activity with a look of satisfaction.

“I’m trying to prove that teens can do a lot of things,” Sanchez said.

She is now after bigger fish. Sanchez video-taped her project and is sendingit to the national headquarters of the 4-H Clubs. She is going to try to qualify for a $10,000 grant to do even more work at the riding center.

By the way, her friend did get the tickets to the Backstreet Boys concert, and Sanchez herself got to have dinner with the Backstreet Boys.

But such brushes with fame doesn’t really impress Sanchez. She is moreconcerned with her work.

While putting up a fence post, Sanchez said, “This is something we can look back on and be proud of.”

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