The horses at the New York Equestrian Center may not talk, like the fictional television equine Mr. Ed, but the connection between autistic children and horses can build the children’s communications skills, improve their social engagement and regulate their behavior — which is why the Gersh Academy, a West Hempstead school for children on the autistic spectrum, and the New York Equestrian Center are building a school for students with autism.
The program is an outgrowth of the Gersh Academy’s and NYEC’s Equine Assisted Therapy program, which was launched five years ago and allows students to work with and care for horses. The Town of Hempstead Board of Appeals recently announced approval for the construction. The school is scheduled to open in September 2019 at the NYEC in West Hempstead.
“For about a dozen years now, since I’ve taken over the equestrian center, we’ve participated in some type of equine therapy,” NYEC owner Alex Jacobson explained. “In the last five years, we’ve developed this relationship with Gersh Academy that basically started with introductions, and moved on to be a pilot program. After studies of the pilot program’s success had been done, we decided to go to the next level here and make this a full-time school for the benefit of the children and the community.”
The school will occupy the entire second floor of the NYEC building, the area’s only year-round equestrian facility for recreational, therapeutic and competitive use. The school will have 18 classrooms to educate more than 100 students on the autism spectrum in grades five through 12, with all areas designed to meet the specialized needs of the school’s population. Therapeutic stations will be set up on the first floor, where students will learn to ride, groom, feed and bathe horses.
“The children actually respond in this incredible, calm way,” said Celeste Gagliardi, principal and director of special education at Gersh Academy. “They almost learn how to self-regulate themselves where they’re not as active and they’re calmer. Literally, there’s this magic that happens between the students and the horses, and they really become in line with each other. It’s a really amazing thing to watch.”
The project, which Jacobson expects to be a multi-million-dollar investment, aims to create a comfortable environment for students and horses, which will include a climate-control system and specialized flooring to reduce sound on the first floor. Construction will start sometime next winter.
“I’m really excited for the resource that Nassau County and, more importantly, the Town of Hempstead and the West Hempstead community will get,” Jacobson said. “This will attract families and a decent amount of attention to our area. I’m more excited about the actual benefits that hundreds of children will now get from the program.”
Jacobson said that community groups and organizations from the West Hempstead Community Support Association to the West Hempstead Chamber of Commerce, and the West Hempstead and Lakeview fire departments, all support the project. Roughly 200 people attended a hearing of the Town Board of Appeals on Feb. 28.
“That means that we’re on to something — something great,” Jacobson said.
Gagliardi said that Gersh Academy has been a part of several groundbreaking initiatives since she arrived in 2012. When she started, the school had 59 students. Now there are 143.
“I think that speaks to the growth and need for a quality program for students on the spectrum, and now this is just kind of the shining star of where we’re going,” Gagliardi said. “I do believe that we will be the model for the United States and worldwide of how you do this well. I think that Mr. Gersh is a visionary and knows how to put his vision into practice.”
Kevin Gersh, the school’s founder, said he was grateful to the Town Board of Appeals for its support for the project. “Just as important, we’re incredibly lucky to work with Alex [Jacobson] and the New York Equestrian Center, who have been amazing partners in helping us realize our vision to create this special program and school. As Winston Churchill said, ‘There is something about the outside of a horse that is good for the inside of a man.’”
Those interested in the program can call the Gersh Academy at (516) 986-9580, or visit its website, www.gershacademy.org.