by Todd Cohen
photographs by Jill Knight
Without guidance or the tools they need to handle challenges, teenagers can get caught up in self-destructive relationships and behavior with far-reaching consequences. At Corral Riding Academy, troubled teenage girls are given a chance to care for and bond with horses and receive tutoring, mentorship, and guidance. They learn to build smarter and safer relationships and rebuild their lives.
“We’ve got kids who have risk factors or are involved in risky behaviors,” says Joy Currey, 36, a former teacher who founded the Cary nonprofit and runs it on 10 acres leased from her parents on the alfalfa farm she grew up on. “We can virtually guarantee they will not be involved in those behaviors after a year in the program.”
Consider Marilyn: As a high school sophomore in 2012, Marilyn’s grade point average was zero. She had no aspirations for her future. “She skipped most of her classes and was involved with some folks who had already dropped out of high school,” Currey says. After one year at Corral, the teenager was earning As and Bs in school. Today, she is a freshman at St. Andrews University in Laurinburg.
Currey’s passion for helping at-risk girls grew out of her years as a teacher with Teach for America at a middle school in Philadelphia, and as a charter school co-founder in Brooklyn, N.Y. The UNC-Chapel Hill graduate – who also holds a master’s degree from Columbia University’s Teachers College – says the experience made her realize there was a lack of effective solutions for troubled teens.
Teaching in Philadelphia was “very depressing,” says Currey. “I did see what kids could achieve with a good teacher, but the odds were stacked against them, and I left with little or no hope to affect the system.” But in Brooklyn, she saw progress: Students who started at the charter school performing three to five grade levels below where they should have been went on to become some of New York City’s highest-performing students by the seventh grade.
The two teaching jobs “united a calling in me to help disadvantaged youth,” Currey says. “I started Corral with the hopes of pairing my love of horses with my passion for kids who have had a tough go at life. When we started, it was just an intervention to stay out of trouble and keep their grades up, but it’s become so much more than that.”
Operating with an annual budget of $330,000, eight employees, 400 volunteers a year, and 10 rescue horses, Corral serves about 40 girls a year who are referred by county agencies and nonprofits.
Now, as her parents plan to sell their 50-acre farm off Kildaire Farm Road, Currey is trying to raise $1 – $1.5 million by June to buy the 10 acres Corral currently leases. The effort has already raised $700,000, including a commitment from Storr Office Environments owners Tom and Mary Vande Guchte of Raleigh to match new gifts up to a total of $200,000 that were pledged by Dec. 31, 2015.
Currey and her husband, Rob Currey, manager for corporate strategy for Zurich-based ABB, live with their 4-year-old daughter and 2-year-old son on Kildaire Farm Road, across the street from her parents’ farm.
Who are the girls Corral serves?
For the most part, all have had a tough go at life. Over 80 percent are victims of abuse, neglect, or trauma. We are looking for the kids who are most at risk in our community and also have the biggest commitment to change.
How do you find them?
Girls are referred to us from different agencies in the county – Wake County Human Services, the court system, schools, police. Also nonprofits, like InterAct, SAFEchild, or Haven House. We have a program called Join the Herd: once-a-week group equine therapy. They come for an hour and a half, and pick a horse and work on learning basic relationship and social skills with that horse weekly for eight weeks. During those eight weeks, we get an opportunity to assess whether they’re going to come, come on time, and show trust while they’re here. If they successfully complete Join the Herd, they are offered an application to the riding academy, which is our core program, a long-term holistic intervention.
How does the tutoring work?
Our director of education leads tutoring. She has a master’s of education, and worked as a principal in Brooklyn for 20 years at a public elementary school. She oversees the academic intervention, and we have volunteer tutors who work one-on-one with the girls weekly about four hours minimum.
What about mentoring?
We have volunteer mentors. Girls are at our farm 15 hours a week. When they arrive, we give them an opportunity to meet adults through components of the program. Mentorship happens organically. It’s who they gravitate to. A big portion of the program is getting our kids to college. A mentor will take a role for them emotionally, initially to help stabilize them, and ultimately in helping them get to college – help with college essays, writing recommendations, talking when things get tough, providing safety when things get dangerous, shepherding them through the difficult middle and high school years
What vocational training do you offer?
Girls are at the farm 15 hours a week for the entire academic year. On Saturday, they’re entirely responsible for the farm and horses. Our intention is not necessarily that they all become farmers or horse people, but that they learn the skills and work ethic of a farm.
What role does equine-assisted psychotherapy play?
It’s the heart of our program. Each child picks a horse that will be her relationship horse for the year. And they continue the work they started in Join the Herd of developing a relationship with the horse, including showing in local shows, walking and trotting and cantering through hills. It’s all done through relationships. There are no ropes, bits, spurs, or saddles. It’s bareback, bridleless, with a lot done on the ground.
There’s a fair amount of science behind this. Horses are herd animals. They have to know how to function really well in family units and relationships. That is their key to safety in the wild. They don’t have sharp teeth or claws. All they have is their relationships to keep them safe. They won’t work with you unless you have healthy relationship skills. If you’re overly aggressive or fearful or anxious, they don’t want to have anything to do with you. That’s where the psychotherapy comes in: If it’s not working, it’s usually because they’re following patterns in family structure that are not healthy. And the therapist can say: What’s not working here? And how do we change it?
What difference has Corral made for girls in the program?
All five of our girls who stayed with us through senior year in high school have gone to college – Wake Tech, St. Andrews, Salem, UNC-Greensboro, Meredith. All of our girls come with several risk factors. Most girls have at least one failing grade. Over 50 percent have tried suicide. Many are involved in risky sexual activities. Over 25 percent are involved in gangs. By the end of the first year, all are passing their classes. If they’ve been in the program three or more years, they’re taking honors and Advanced Placement courses. They are not involved in gang life or poor peer relationships after one year. And after one year, they are no longer actively suicidal. They have a healthy connection to positive peer and mentoring relationships and positive community involvement, such as local horse shows and volunteering in the community.
What does Corral mean to you?
Corral was definitely a calling. I have two children – actually, three. This was my first child. I have a two- and a four-year-old. It has been a challenging road to go start a nonprofit and then to shepherd these girls, who are having such a tough time, through their middle and high school years. I wouldn’t still be doing it unless I got to see God show up and redeem these kids’ lives time after time after time when I thought it was impossible.
Who are your parents?
My father is Thad Busbice. He’s selling the farm because, at 83, he decided it’s time to retire. He was a plant breeder. He bred predominantly alfalfa. My mother is June Busbice. She’s 73. She focused on raising five kids. I’m the youngest. They have 13 grandchildren.
What did you learn from them?
My dad taught me independence. And he definitely impressed upon me the value of education. Also, growing up in Depression-era Louisiana, he instilled in me a recognition of racism and segregation that fueled my interest in education and started this journey through Teach for America and teaching. My mother has an incredible faith. I think she modeled that for me, as well as a constant care for others. Her life very much exudes servanthood.
Who do you admire in Raleigh?
Tom Vande Guchte. He owns a company. He drives an old pickup truck. He doesn’t have a fancy house or fancy clothes. He has five children, all grown now. It’s very obvious that family comes first. We are one of many nonprofits they give so generously to.
If you could fix a social problem, what would it be?
Education. I would pay teachers more so we could attract good teachers. And I would give leadership and authority to the school leaders to create a great school, and fire them if they didn’t.