Starksboro program teaches kids life skills through farm chores

STARKSBORO — Unbound Grace, a youth program in Starksboro, doesn’t just teach kids to ride horses.
“This program connects children to recognize their strengths. And they’re empowered and set out on their life journey to take those talents and embrace them to their greatest ability and then share them back with the community,” said Kerry Kurt, who founded and runs the program.
“That’s the best way to be grateful for the gifts that you have been given: to use the gift, to not hoard it.”
The program is based on Sentinel Farms, Kurt’s 186-acre beef cattle ranch and horse farm off Route 116. Kurt bought the property in 2004. Unbound Grace became a 501(c)(3) nonprofit in 2008 and began programming in 2009. Over the years, Unbound Grace has offered summer camp and afterschool programs and mentored children and young adults one-on-one.
Kurt’s philosophy is to help kids learn and grow through hands-on experiences. The program integrates them into the daily routine on a working farm and is designed to:
•  Give kids real responsibility. Horses require food, water, grooming and clean stalls. To keep a farm running, chores must be done every day.
•  Sets real limits. If you work around powerful animals you have to follow the rules.
•  Help kids grow strong by teaching them self-advocacy, hard work and responsibility.
•  Help each child find a place of centeredness. To work around horses successfully, you need to be calm and gentle.
•  Help kids express themselves through art and journaling.
And by being on the farm and unplugged from today’s electronic lifestyle, said Kurt, Unbound Grace helps kids reconnect with animals and nature and in that silence, learn to listen to themselves and find who they really are.
With this nurturing and these high expectations comes real pride in accomplishment, real confidence.
Alongside the fun, art and chores, kids learn horsemanship and riding skills in a safe, methodical manner. Lessons include:
•  Horse anatomy
•  Horse grooming
•  Basic horse communication and respect
•  How to get a horse out of the pasture
•  How to walk a horse on a lead
•  How to saddle and bridle a horse
Kurt is a firm believer that horses are great teachers.
“Kids learn immediately that this is an animal who is gracing them with a gift of learning and with their presence,” she said. “They are not a wrench or a hammer or a tool or a motorcycle. They are extremely sensitive beings and a joy to develop a relationship with.”
The youth program and farm hit a snag two years ago, said the 53-year-old Kurt, when she and her longtime life and business partner parted ways. The farm, called Sentinel Farms, is now in Chapter 12 bankruptcy, a program specifically designed, said Kurt, to give working family farms options and a toolkit to get back on track.
Sentinel Farms raises and breeds Red Angus/Hereford mixed cattle for grass-fed, grass-finished beef. Herd size is at 50 right now, said Kurt, along with the farm’s 12 horses. She said that with the continued growth of her beef herd, she believes the farm should be out of bankruptcy and self-sustaining within 18 months.
While Unbound Grace is a registered nonprofit; the farm is a business. And for Kurt each supports the work of the other.
“Unbound Grace utilizes the full resources of Sentinel Farms to host its programs,” she said. “The working farm is central to the healing aspect of the Unbound Grace programs.”
This year’s two-week multiage summer program for youth (ages 6-17) begins July 24.
The farm has also started a You Caring fundraising campaign to raise $27,000.
For more information, go to the Sentinel Farms and Unbound Grace website at unboundgrace.org.
Gaen Murphree is at [email protected].

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