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Cedar Rapids Girl Scout creates sensory trail for children with autism

12 stations help children attending adaptive horseback riding program at Inspiration Stables

Marie Bruns of Cedar Rapids stands in this #x201c;touch#x201d; station, using pool noodles. It's part of the portable se
Marie Bruns of Cedar Rapids stands in this “touch” station, using pool noodles. It’s part of the portable sensory trail she made for the adaptive horseback riding program at Inspiration Stables near Worthington. Bruns constructed the bases, painted them and attached the pool noodles, which horses will then walk in between while the riders feel the touch. It’s one of a dozen sensory stations Bruns created for her Girl Scout Gold Award project. The stations are designed especially for children with autism, to engage their senses of smell, touch, sight and sound. (Photo courtesy of Girl Scouts of Eastern Iowa and Western Illinois)
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Marie Bruns grew up as a Cedar Rapids city girl, but she gravitated toward the horse riding activities at Girl Scout camp. And now she has earned the Gold Award — a Girl Scout’s highest honor — by creating a portable sensory trail designed especially for children with autism attending an adaptive horseback riding program.

The 12 stations help riders engage with their senses of smell, touch, sight and sound, through various activities done on horseback. They range from dropping balls in a basket to matching up shapes on boards, making music by hitting a mallet on different sizes of PVC pipe, and riding through pool noodles attached to posts known as jump standards.

The weather-resistant stations, which can be set up indoors or out, have been delivered to Inspiration Stables near Worthington, about an hour northeast of Cedar Rapids. They are expected to go into use this year.

“I was always that little girl that’s super into horses, but the only time I got to ride them was at summer camp, and that’s the big reason why I started going to camp,” said Bruns, 19, now a freshman biology student at Iowa State University in Ames. “When I became a teenager, I took lessons once a week, but I never really had my own horse. We had a family farm, but there weren’t horses out there — just cows.”

She said the inspiration for her final Girl Scout project came while she was daydreaming during a class at the start of her senior year at Jefferson High School.

“I knew I wanted to do something with animals, and then I knew I wanted to do something with children, but I didn’t really know how I wanted to combine the two,” she said. “I was Googling and found equine-assisted therapy, so it just combined my two passions, and I was like, ‘That’s what I want to do.’ ”

That was in 2019, and she spent about a year turning her vision into a reality.

She volunteered in the past at Miracles in Motion near Swisher, so she was familiar with the benefits of adaptive horseback riding for people with various challenges, including autism.

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“Children with autism can feel out of place in our constantly moving world. It can be extremely hard for them to create bonds and express their emotions,” she wrote in her Gold Award application. “An amazing way to achieve this is through adaptive horseback riding. When they create a bond with the horse it allows them to make great strides in all aspects of their life. Riding gives them more confidence as well as improving skills such as fine motor skills and balance.”

She saw a sensory trail online, and decided that would an ideal way to blend her interests, helping users to “engage in ways they normally wouldn’t get to.”

Along with shaping her own plans, she began emailing area riding facilities to find one that not only needed a big project but would have enough room to accommodate a 12-part trail, designed to be used indoors or out. Inspiration Stables, an adaptive horseback riding program for children with special needs, fit the bill.

Creation

The project took “forever,” she said, and included a lot of planning and documentation to qualify for the Gold Award.

“It started at the beginning of my senior year, and was supposed to be done and delivered in March of 2020, but clearly, that wasn’t going to happen, because the world had different plans,” she said. “I think I finally delivered all the pieces in August.

“It took about a year to get them all built, because I knew nothing about woodworking, and they’re all made out of wood, so I had to get a lot of help from a lot of different people. Then Inspiration set me up with an occupational therapist. I talked to her to help make all the stations so they would work like they were supposed to and benefit the senses they were supposed to.”

For help, Bruns turned to her parents, Dan and Karen Bruns; her troop members; leaders Melena Urbanowski and Amy Evans; and Sarah Weber Kumpf, Inspiration Stables’ executive director. They offered everything from guidance and advice to help with fundraising and construction. Total cost was close to $500, raised through donations and troop cookie sales, so none of the money came from her own pocket, Bruns said.

Lacking carpentry skills, she turned to leader Urbanowski’s husband, Jesse Urbanowski.

“His whole garage is like a woodworking place, so he walked me through how to woodwork, like how to use a power screwdriver, to how to cut wood, to how to build these super-fancy things,” she said. Once they were built, the pieces were taken to Bruns’ house, to be painted and assembled in the garage.

Significance

In the final step, she received her Gold Award in December or early January, while she was home for winter break.

The honor takes on even more significance, since she wasn’t sure she would even tackle a Gold Award project.

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“Obviously, I’m proud to have the award, but more than anything, I’m proud to have done a project like that, that deserved to have an award like that,” she said.

In her documentation, she wrote: “People with special needs are constantly overlooked, especially in parts of the world that do not have the ability or resources to deal with their adaptive needs. My project offers a space for these individuals to go where they can grow their skills and experiences through adaptive horseback riding and sensory stations. At Inspiration Stables, they will not be overlooked, but instead are having a project tailored to benefit them immensely.”

All the effort and years in Scouting, beginning as a Daisy in early elementary, have been worth it for her, as well.

“Scouting has made me into the person I am today,” she told The Gazette. “I was the shiest kid you’ll ever meet. It was bad, and so my mom started sending me to Girl Scout camp. She thought I was going to chicken out ... but I just kept going back.

“Every year I went back, I learned a new skill. I became more confident in myself. I made new friends — I learned how to make friends,” she added.

“Girl Scouts really pushes you out of your comfort zone. I did a project like this, which I never in a million years said I was going to be able to do. (Scouting) has definitely made me who I am today.”

Comments: (319) 368-8508; diana.nollen@thegazette.com

About the trail

• What: Sensory Trail for adaptive horseback riding, designed especially for children with autism and sensory processing challenges

• Created by: Marie Bruns of Cedar Rapids for her Girl Scout Gold Award project

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• Where: Inspiration Stables, 30234 E. Worthington Rd., Worthington

• Details: inspirationstables.org/Sensory-Trail/

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