Nestled among 53 acres in Tobaccoville is a place where people of all ages and abilities can achieve wholeness and acceptance.
For Laura Pallavicini, it is a magical place. She discovered Riverwood Therapeutic Riding Center in 1999 when, fresh out of UNC-Chapel Hill, she moved to Winston-Salem for work. Before long the accomplished equestrian became a volunteer and part-time instructor at the center. By 2000, Pallavicini had left her day job to become Riverwood’s first full-time program director. She, like so many others, had found a place to call home.
“What this center is doing is changing lives,” Pallavicini says of the internationally accredited nonprofit that offers equine-assisted activities and therapies to children and adults with special needs.
“People with disabilities have an inclusive place where they can be themselves and can develop strength, mobility and relationships.”
“There is a lot of hope and a lot of joy out here. It is a safe place in the world right now.”
Founded by Susan Hubbard in 1995, Riverwood serves more than 750 people a year from Forsyth, Yadkin, Stokes, Surry and Davie counties through its therapeutic riding, equine-facilitated learning, community-based learning and mobile outreach programs. Last year Hubbard passed the reins of executive director to Pallavicini.
“I know how hard these families have to work to find the right resources and support for their children,” Pallavicini says, “and I am honored, so deeply honored, to be a part of that journey for them.”
Phillippa Stiles was just 7 when she began her journey at Riverwood. Known as “Philly” among friends and family, she was adopted from a Russian orphanage at age 3 and soon thereafter diagnosed with fetal alcohol spectrum disorders that cause cognitive and developmental delays.
For Philly and her mother, Lissa Stiles, Riverwood is a safe haven of acceptance and support. Now a vibrant 17-year-old, Philly is an active member of the center’s competitive horse showing team and performs confidently in front of large audiences in North Carolina and Virginia. The many ribbons displayed on doors throughout the Stiles home are a testament to just how far she’s come.
“We are now hanging them on her loft bed. Some kids just throw them in a box, but she loves seeing her ribbons all over the place,” Lissa says. “Riverwood has been a great place for her to grow up. It is very much a family.”
Finding the center has been equally important to Lissa, a veterinary technician at Shallowford Animal Hospital.
“I am a single parent to a special-needs child. It can be very isolating,” she explains. “The closest friends I have made have been here, because we all are fighting a very similar battle.”
From children with cerebral palsy to senior citizens with Parkinson’s disease, Pallavicini has witnessed time and again the power of Riverwood’s programs to transform lives.
“Their whole self can shine through here. They are not being judged. They are not being put into a box,” the executive director says.
“To take someone like Philly, who has struggled with even the simplest step-by-step directions, and watch her do a 15-step dressage test from memory is really remarkable. It is just a magical place.”
Riverwood received a $14,401 Community Grant in 2017 to support an executive transition from its founder to a new executive director. Since 1999, the Foundation has provided grant support to Riverwood totaling more than $187,000.