AVON LAKE — It started with a conversation 12 years ago.
And the result is smiles and laughter from special-needs children and their families every year since.
Avon Lake Saddle Club hosted its 12th annual Hay Day on Saturday at Weiss Field Horse Arena with horse rides, petting and grooming horses, games, prizes and entertainment.
Laura and Nick Salvatore, of North Olmsted, have taken their daughter, Victoria, to the event since the beginning.
“We’ve gone to everyone except last year because Tori was sick,” Laura Salvatore said. “She was so disappointed last year.”
Missing last year’s Hay Day made this one even more meaningful.
Tori, 17, is nonverbal. She has hearing and sight problems, sensory issues, seizure disorder and is a kidney transplant recipient.
“With multiple disorders, it makes you do things differently,” Salvatore said. “You can’t always do things you’d normally be able to do.”
Due to Tori’s needs, a lot of activities are restricted.
But not at Hay Day.
“I remember our first year,” Salvatore said. “We watched the kids riding horses, playing, making crafts, and Tori was able to do everything they were doing. There was nothing she couldn’t due because of her health and disabilities. It was the first time we ever felt like that.”
Laura was a little nervous to put her child up on a horse, but that nervousness quickly fell away.
“There are just so many people who know what they are doing,” she said. “They know horses and they are so patient. They don’t rush the kids.”
Each rider gets a souvenir photo to take home of them on top of a horse.
“She loves looking back at her pictures,” Salvatore said. “It’s the only time she gets to ride, so it’s a huge day. The older she gets, the more she looks forward to it.”
Kathleen Azzarello, president of Avon Lake Saddle Club, said seeing the smiles makes the hard work worth it.
“It is just absolutely amazing,” she said. “When you see the kid up on horseback, and they just have that look that says, ‘Wow. I’m free.’ Smiles are abundant for everyone throughout the day.”
Hay Day began with Azzarello’s aunt, Mary Oring, former president of the saddle club. She had a conversation with the director of the now-defunct Children’s Developmental Services in Amherst and asked if they ever did anything with the children and horses.
The director explained it was cost-prohibitive for many reasons.
That’s when Oring stepped in.
Each year, about 75 riders and their siblings, parents and caregivers come to the event.
Just like Deb Lee.
An independent care provider out of Cleveland, Lee has brought two of her clients to Hay Day for the past several years — a 43-year-old woman and a 47-year-old man.
“It’s just a delight to see them,” Lee said of her clients. “They really don’t get an opportunity to see animals like that, and to ride them, that’s something special.”
Her female client also enjoys playing the games and some of the other activities, while the male really likes the music and dancing.
And it’s a social event, just as much for the families and caregivers as it is for the children.
Tori is a junior at North Olmsted High School, where there isn’t much time for the parents to engage socially.
“With all of us together, we get a chance to talk,” Salvatore said. “You don’t really get that at drop-off.”
And that’s what it’s all about — having a good time.
“The smiles are just so abundant,” Azzarello said. “The whole family just has fun, and it’s a free event, so families don’t have to worry about paying anything out of pocket. They just come and have fun.”
With only 10 members in the Saddle Club, the event wouldn’t be possible without the many volunteers and sponsors who help out, she said.
For more information about Hay Day, visit www.avonlakesaddleclub.com.