Lisa A. Gatti, Founder and Executive Director of Pal-O-Mine Equestrian, began her career as a special education high school teacher. Today, she uses her horses as her teaching tool rather than books. Lisa’s accomplishments do not go unrecognized on local and national levels. She was chosen as the US Team Leader for Equestrian in the 1996 and 2000 Paralympic Games in Atlanta, Georgia and Sydney, Australia. From 1997 – 2000, she also served as the National Sports Technical Officer for Equestrian under the auspices of the US Cerebral Palsy Athletic Association. In 2002, Lisa was one of three nationally invited guests to Warendorf, Germany to participate in an international certification course for coaches involved in therapeutic riding. Her credits also include an “on air” award as “An American Hero” by the CBS Early Show, in 2001. In 2003, Lisa was presented with the Theresa Award and honored by the Theresa Alessandra Russo Foundation and, in 2004, Lisa was named one of Long Island’s 40 rising stars under the age of 40 by the Long Island Business News. Most recently, Lisa was chosen as one of the Top 50 Most Influential Women in Business on Long Island and yet again, in 2007 Ms. Gatti was inducted into the Long Island Volunteer Hall of Fame for her philanthropic endeavors.
What are you working on right now?
Currently, we are working on a new project for veterans. Our “Horses Healing Veterans” program came about because we began to realize the tremendous need for both physical and emotional therapy for veterans returning from the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. Long Island, where our program is located, is home to the second largest population of returning veterans. Horses can heal both and we believe this program will make a significant impact for our veterans and their families. That said we are currently in the process of raising money to raise a new barn to house the program on our property. It is a labor of love and a project we are all really passionate about.
How do you bring ideas to life?
When it comes to the programs and services of our organization, it is all about need. We identify a need and we build a program or service to fill the need. From there, we work with sponsors or donations to fund the program and our staff, volunteers and students to help bring the project to life.
What has been the most rewarding part of creating and building your organization?
Hands down, the most rewarding part of what we do is seeing the students thrive. We measure success very differently here than in most organizations. It isn’t about how much money we raise, although that helps with the programs, it isn’t about getting the most publicity, although the more people know about us, the more help we get…it’s about experiencing the little miracles that happen every day here. Let me give you an example. A child with autism can come to our program and within weeks, smiles for the first time. That feeling, that knowledge that your program helped that child connect, the experience of seeing that child’s parent’s see a smile for the first time, well, that is undoubtedly the most rewarding part of what we do. The best thing is these miracles happen everyday. The horses bring our students joy, confidence, support, friendship and autonomy…it is amazing.
What has been your greatest challenge and how have you overcome it?
The single biggest challenge is trying to provide our services to EVERYONE who needs it, regardless of their ability to pay. We know how important our programs are to our students and their families, and so we never want to turn anyone away. In order to overcome that, we work hard to obtain grants and donations which can be a challenge, especially in a troubled economy.
What inspires you?
The courage of my students. I see my students overcome disabilities, challenges and life traumas that you would think most people could never overcome. It is so inspiring to watch a child who is blind, who has for their whole life relied on the site of others to get around, get on a horse and confidently ride around a ring. Seeing an adult who has faced emotional, physical or sexual abuse begin to trust again. It takes tremendous courage to try to overcome hardships and disabilities and yet, day after day, I see it happen before my very eyes. It is very inspiring.
What are 3 trends that excite you?
A trend within our organization currently is that our programs, once developed, become self-funded. This is really a testament to the work we do and the impact the programs have on the students. Beyond the initial grant money we receive, the groups that participate in the program feel so strongly about the outcome that they find a way to fund it. This trend really excites me!
What is one mistake you’ve made and what did you learn from it?
Thinking growth is more important than anything else. What we came to realize is that growth really can’t happen until there is an infrastructure in place to support it. I had to step back and re-evaluate that and make sure I have a strong foundation to support the growth.
What is one book and/or tool that helps you?
I love the Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell…On the cover it says, ”How little things can make a big difference.” I feel like this is really what our organization is about. We have a group of people here who are so willing to be led and make a difference. That is a magical thing.
What made you decide to start your non-profit organization?
I was teaching in the classroom with 15-21 year old at risk youths who had just gotten out of jail. I realized that teaching them about Edgar Allen Poe was quite useless. If I taught them about my horse and about horses in general, it would instill a sense of sportsmanship, trust, teamwork and honesty and it worked. From there, an idea was born. I realized horses can heal and rehabilitate and we have been doing that ever since.
Who would you love to see interviewed on IdeaMensch?
I love the story behind Erin Brockovich because she is someone who pushed the barriers of what can be done. She really inspires me because her motivation is compassion and she shows you can make a huge impact and it doesn’t matter how many letters you have behind your name—anyone can make an impact. Another person is Andre Agassi …and the work he is doing with underprivileged kids through his charter school. He overcame so much and is really making a difference in the lives of his students.
How can members of our community help?
Donations help us continue to do what we do. Donations both small and large help us tremendously. A $5 donation helps feed one of our horses a ½ bail of hay. $225 will help pay for four therapeutic lessons for a child or adult with physical disabilities who can’t afford the therapy on their own. $12,000 will fund a 12-week preventative heroin addiction program for 12 at-risk youth. For those who are not able to donate, sharing our story, website or videos about our program with their friends and network would help us tremendously. Donating furniture, computers, and electronics to our office to help us keep the administration of our program running smoothly is greatly beneficial to us. For more ideas, you can visit our website at: http://www.pal-o-mine.org/
What is your dream for Pal-O-Mine in the future?
We would like to open a charter school to create an inclusive environment for students who lie within the autistic spectrum, those who are considered to be at risk, have add/adhd, sensory dysfunction and for those who are typically developing. The school would have a Character Education program that is equine based that will bring students of varied ages and abilities together to work on tasks and develop social skills.
What is the proudest moment of your life?
In 1996, the first year the Olympic Association recognized the Para-Olympics, I had the privilege of being chosen as US Team Leader for the United States Equestrian Team. It was a tremendous honor and one that I will never forget. However, my proudest moment was walking trough the Olympic Tunnel in Atlanta, the same tunnel every Olympic athlete that year walked through, with my athletes. The pride of my athletes, wearing the red, white and blue was so amazing. At that point, there was no significance of a disability, we were going to compete just like everyone else, we were athletes. We took forth place out of seventeen countries that year. I was so proud of my athletes and of the sportsmanship and athleticism they showed the world.