Lemonade Living is ‘making life sweet’ for others through its therapeutic horseback riding programs. Photo by Melissa Arias
A participant in the therapeutic horseback riding program at Lemonade Living. Photo by Melissa Arias
LEMONADE LIVING News:
Melissa Arias is the founder of Lemonade Living, a non-profit in Los Alamos that helps people with developmental disabilities and special needs to have more fulfilling lives.
When Arias’s daughter was young, they had birthday parties with horseback riding and fishing. One of the guests was a young boy with autism who was non-verbal.
“We put him on a horse, and he started talking. His mother got so excited and emotional,” Arias said. “For a parent who has been anxiously waiting for their child to begin speaking and suddenly he’s uttering words. It’s a big deal, and a beautiful thing. And when you put a kid on a horse, these things can just happen.”
The motto of Lemonade Living is “making life sweet”. Because of the experience at the birthday party, Arias knew that therapeutic horseback riding was an important ingredient. But she didn’t know how it was going to come about.
What is Lemonade Living?
The mission of Lemonade Living is to enrich and empower the lives of young adults with developmental disabilities.
When Arias founded Lemonade Living, she envisioned a program that included:
Opportunities inspired by positive experiences gained by her daughter in the Living Skills program at LAHS, developed by teacher Robyn Collom.
Day program including field trips and cultural experiences.
Coaching for job skills to gain employment or operate a small business.
Farm to Kitchen program.
Residential Campus with core activities center and therapy services.
Most important, the programs needed to fill service gaps in Los Alamos, that affect families from the moment students age out of high school until the time they become senior citizens.
Arias explained, “In Los Alamos, people were going from having a full support staff for their child or student in the school system to having no services at all once they graduate or age out.”
This transition was devastating for many, including her daughter.
Families were asking, “Should we leave the hill to get services?”
People with special needs require special services, and when those services are not available, most often, caregiving falls to family, especially in small communities. Families of young adults with special needs have had to decide whether to move away, travel for services elsewhere, or go without.
When Arias’s daughter with special needs left the school system they were faced with the tough decision of staying in Los Alamos or leaving to get the services. There were programs in Santa Fe, Albuquerque and Texas that were possibilities. But they wanted to stay in Los Alamos.
“At some point, when you’re aging, you need a backup plan,” Arias said. “I realized that it was arrogant to think that I could do it all on my own.”
What happens if the parents can no longer provide the care? Arias said, “I was reading all sorts of stories with worst-case-scenarios where people with autism became institutionalized and because of their disability or certain behaviors were medicated and restrained. That is terrifying to me.”
That’s when she decided to take it upon herself to build up the services here in Los Alamos. And when she did, she was pleasantly surprised to find out that she was not alone.
Forming the Developmental Disabilities and Special Needs Roundtable
People with special needs, especially autism, is a growing segment in our population. Families have a desire for quality services, and they usually feel the need to be a part of it.
Several local nonprofits are working together to serve this growing segment of the population.
Lemonade Living formed the Developmental Disabilities and Special Needs Roundtable to coordinate services between local organizations and fill service gaps for our families with developmental disabilities and special needs.
Roundtable members include All Individuals First, Family Strengths Network, The Gifted Horse, Global Hydranencephaly Foundation, Lemonade Living, Los Alamos Makers, Los Alamos Public Schools and The Family YMCA.
“Many smaller organizations offering services are often founded by a parent. People who light up when you tell them about what you’re trying to do usually are people who have a loved one with special needs,” Arias said. “That’s where the understanding comes from.”
The goal of the Roundtable is not to compete, but to fill gaps in service.
When she started collaborating with other organizations, she found that other people shared similar goals for the community.
For example, Doris Roberts, the founder of All Individuals First, was already making it possible for people to go on outings in the community with her day program. That meant that Lemonade Living did not have to manage that piece of the puzzle and could focus on Therapeutic Riding, the Farm to Kitchen program and a Residential Campus.
Individuals with special needs bring real value to businesses
In order to help their clientele gain on the job training, Lemonade Living began operation of Rose Chocolatier, a local chocolate shop Oct. 1, 2019. By teaching people to make chocolates, bake pastries and serve espresso drinks, Lemonade Living is able to create a year-long, open-door job training program that didn’t previously exist in Los Alamos.
“Having a job is not just about money, but about having a purpose and place in the community. There are young people who work at places such as Smith’s or the Reel Deal Theater. There are some ongoing jobs in the community. And there are temporary jobs that are provided through an IEP with the school. The problem is that these job opportunities are very limited, and they might not be ongoing.”
“We’re hoping to encourage businesses to offer jobs to individuals with developmental disabilities,” Arias said. “Business owners may not completely understand the value of employing people with developmental disabilities, especially in terms of attendance and attention to detail.”
For more information on the skills that individuals with special needs bring to the workforce, read the article, “Hiring those with disabilities isn’t charity, it’s good business,” by Caitie Burkes, in the Greater Baton Rouge Business Report.
According to Arias, people with developmental disabilities possess skills that are often overlooked by employers searching for the most “highly qualified” candidate.
She said, “Frankly, in many businesses there are jobs that are very important, but sometimes tedious and time consuming. Most people might be tempted to rush through those duties or not give them the care that they deserve. But an employee with autism or other developmental disability often excels at this type of task due to greater attention to detail and interest in doing a meticulous job. There’s huge value there.”
At Rose Chocolatier, there are all kinds of jobs that require attention to detail, such as measuring ingredients for pastry production, folding cake and cupcake boxes, applying stickers and bows, and most certainly, the details and art of chocolatiering. Arias said, “Every job there needs to be done carefully and well.”
How Kristin Tobias Reached Lemonade Living’s First Activities Goal by Starting the Gifted Horse
When Arias started out, Lemonade Living was called Lemonade Therapy Co-op of Los Alamos, also known simply as Lemonade. The original goal was to utilize existing County, small business and nonprofit services to form a cooperative of activities for community members with developmental disabilities. She thought Lemonade would need to build a therapeutic riding program in order to bring this service to Los Alamos.
The Lemonade Board of Directors began work to make the riding program a reality. Laura Tietjen, then secretary of Lemonade Living’s Board of Directors, met Kristin Tobias and knew that she could be the one. Laura invited Kristin to interview at a board meeting. The members of the board were excited to learn that Kristin has a background in ABA Therapy and Developmental Disabilities Case Management in New Mexico. And Kristin shared that building a therapy riding program is her dream and passion.
Kristin interviewed with Lemonade Living, but decided to start her own nonprofit, The Gifted Horse. In a matter of months, Tobias made the riding lessons possible, with the help of Ashley Armijo, of the New Mexico Center for Therapeutic Riding in Santa Fe. Arias had begun volunteer orientation in Armijo’s program just before learning that Kristin was ready to build her own program. So she helped them connect.
Arias was thrilled. “If there’s a part of the project that someone can just run with, I’m thrilled. She accomplished it on her own, and in an amazing time frame. It feels like a great success for us. She just made that whole part of the plan come together by making it her own. As the Roundtable of service providers grows, it’s blossoming into a wonderful thing. The Gifted Horse is a huge part of that.”
The Gifted Horse offers therapeutic riding, day camps, and private lessons at the North Mesa Stables, 650 North Mesa Road, Lot 15/16.
“Kristin is not just about riding therapy,” Arias said. “She has an extensive background in services for the developmental disabilities community. She brings together a great group of women who are very caring and skilled at being able to help young adults and kids alike in developing their riding skills. But it’s not just about developing riding skills. It’s about tapping into their peace and confidence, and helping people develop physically and emotionally. Kristin has the heart for that. She has an amazing drive, and amazing kindness. She really helps encourage the kids, so they have a fantastic experience. She has a fantastic team. She has wonderful animals, who are also part of her team. She has a great location. She worked her tail off to accomplish what she has. I hope the community will really consider going to her for these services because they’re wonderful. I absolutely love what Kristin has done! My daughter is now able to receive therapeutic riding locally from Kristin Tobias, Miranda Parga, and their wonderful team of volunteers! The Gifted Horse is a dream come true for my family, and for Lemonade Living.”