Editor's note: This is the 20th in a series of stories highlighting the 21 agencies to receive United Way's annual campaign funds. The final article will run in Saturday's edition of The Telegram.

By SHAJIA AHMAD

sahmad@gctelegram.com

The most rewarding part of volunteering is seeing the joy it brings others.

Those are the sentiments of Garden City resident T.J. McClure, who for the past year has been lending his time to Miles of Smiles, the local nonprofit organization that offers individuals of all ages with disabilities the therapeutic benefits of horseback riding.

"The greatest thing, I think, is seeing the smile on their face. ... A lot of kids with disabilities can be very tense in their wheelchairs, but on top of the animal they become one with the horse. It helps them relax," said McClure, a general manager at Circle Heifer Development LLC. "For me, it's about giving back to the community. It's very rewarding to be able to work with kids (and adults) with disabilities."

The local program, now in its 14th year, is one of 21 agencies receiving funds from the Finney County United Way's 2012 annual fundraising campaign.

If the United Way reaches its goal $550,000 Miles of Smiles is set to receive $5,000, the same allocation the nonprofit group received last year, according to Sara Brown, the Miles of Smiles' program director.

The funds will benefit the agency's friends and family enrichment programs, enabling the organization to reach out to the community in a variety of ways, from volunteer trainings to clinics or workshops using the agency's 13 horses, which are kept at the group's barn at 901 W. Maple St.

"It's for our outreach programs, to communicate with friends and riders' families about what it is we do and why we do it," Brown said.

The volunteers, like McClure, who guide the riders and handle the horses, are certified through the North American Riding for the Handicapped Association, or NARHA, which the local group is affiliated with but runs independent of.

Interaction with the horses, volunteers, instructors and other riders also can improve a riders' social developments, according to the NARHA. In addition, therapeutic riding is recognized and endorsed by the American Occupational Therapy Association and the American Physical Therapy Association.

For local fourth-grade teacher Nichole Tonioni, who moved to Garden City in August and got involved with Miles of Smiles just a month later, being a part of Miles of Smiles has allowed her to explore her interest in horses through volunteerism, a "double-learning experience."

In addition to being able to learn more about horses by caring for the ones in the program and prepping them for their riding sessions, Tonioni said, the experience also has been uplifting by working with those with physical and mental disabilities.

"(With my first rider) she was challenging, and she didn't trust me at first. Breaking through that barrier and developing that relationship was very rewarding and made me feel incredible. ... It's kind of a selfish feeling it almost shouldn't count as volunteering," Tonioni, who teaches at George Matthews Elementary School, said. "(Miles of Smiles) is really, truly working for a noble and legitimate cause, with instant results for people's lives that's pretty amazing."

Other agencies that will benefit from the 2012 United Way funds are: Finney County RSVP; Kansas Children's Service League; Catholic Social Service; Southeast Asian Mutual Assistance Program; Smart Start; Playground Program; Family Crisis Services; Spirit of the Plains, CASA; The Salvation Army; Meals on Wheels; Habitat for Humanity; Garden City Family YMCA; Garden City Chapter of the Red Cross; Miles of Smiles; Santa Fe Trail Council of the Boy Scouts of America; Community Day Care Center; United Methodist Mexican-American Ministries; United Cerebral Palsy of Kansas; Big Brothers Big Sisters of Finney and Kearny Counties; and Girl Scouts of Kansas Heartland.

Miles of Smiles Therapeutic Riding Program

Contact: Sara Brown, Director of Programs

Address: 901 W. Maple

Phone: (620) 260-9997

Hours: 8 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Friday