When the Dartmouth community pledged to complete 250,000 hours of volunteer service worldwide in 2019, it wasn’t just students and alumni who took up the challenge. Dartmouth parents and family members were also ready to roll up their sleeves for The Call to Serve, and so far their contributions total 19,000 hours—nine percent of the current 211,000-hour total.
In Orange County, California, six members of one Dartmouth family are answering The Call to Serve together. Alex Burke ’21, parents Dan and Kim Burke P’21, and siblings Finn, Logan, and Kira, are regular volunteers at the JF Shea Therapeutic Riding Center. “What I love is that it’s a family endeavor,” says Dan. “It brings us all together on Saturday mornings to serve.”
Through equine therapy, the JF Shea Center works to improve the lives of individuals with disabilities ranging from physical and cognitive to social and emotional challenges. Some volunteers work on the barn crew, helping to groom horses and cleaning stalls. Others are “side walkers,” providing support for clients as they ride horses, and helping therapists with physical and occupational therapy along the way.
“In my opinion the JF Shea center is one of the happiest, most optimistic places on earth,” Dan says. “These riders, their daily lives have so many obstacles. To see them experience true joy is incredibly elevating.”
Alex, who is entering his third year at Dartmouth, began volunteering at JF Shea four years ago to fulfill his high school’s community service requirement. As a side walker, he was paired with a rider who he developed a quick connection with; soon, the rider’s family asked if Alex would be his designated side walker. It turned into a multi-year relationship. Alex’s three siblings were inspired to start volunteering as well, and finally, parents Dan and Kim joined in.
Since then, many riders have made an impact on Dan, but one in particular—a teenage boy with significant verbal and communications challenges—stands out. One day the rider’s mother took Dan aside and told him that her son looked forward to riding alongside him, “because I looked him in the eye and spoke to him like, he said, ‘a normal teenage boy,’” Dan recalls.
“Because that’s who he is inside. And that to me was a remarkable experience. It’s really reminded all of us about the people that we’re really serving.”