Bella McCleaf has always loved horses.
She first grew to love the animal by reading about them in books. From there, she eventually took riding lessons.
Today, the 13-year-old’s work with horses has turned into much more. Bella now volunteers at Camp Hebron in Halifax, helping take care of the horses that aided her through her tough time.
In fact, Bella volunteers at least five times more than anyone else there, according to the camp.
“Her dedication and drive are beyond her years,” said Tammy Briggs, communications director at Camp Hebron. “She’s got great leadership qualities already at a younger age.”
Perhaps the biggest mark Bella has made at Camp Hebron has been left through the camp’s Yellow Breeches program. As part of a joint effort with the Yellow Breeches Educational Center, Camp Hebron has helped special needs and at-risk youth with hands-on learning through its horsemanship program, and Bella has worked closely with some of those children involved.
“There are just so many stories you hear during Yellow Breaches with all these kids coming from so many different backgrounds and lives,” Bella said. “Some of them are really sad, so it’s great to help them out.”
Bella began taking riding lessons at Camp Hebron in 2013. At the time, her older brother had just passed away and she just wanted to take part in something that could help ease her mind.
While the lessons were difficult at first, she said she loved it from the start as it proved to be a great healing mechanism.
“It was a lot to get used to because the only time I had been on a horse was for a pony ride, so it was a lot different being in control of my own horse,” said Bella, daughter of Andrew and Brenda McCleaf.
After about a year of learning to ride, Bella decided that she couldn’t get enough of the horses through just lessons. She first approached Susan Berger, the leader of Camp Hebron’s horsemanship program, about volunteering.
Her volunteer work started as a few hours a week, feeding and grooming the horses and cleaning the stalls after her daily home-school sessions.
It didn’t take long for her role to expand.
It was during her first summer helping at Camp Hebron that Bella was first introduced to the Wrangler-in-Training program. Too young to partake in the program, Bella helped out behind the scenes, ensuring the program ran smoothly for all the WITs at work. Her efforts were noticed and a year later, Bella was a WIT herself.
“That first year, everyone just assumed I would be joining the program next year,” Bella said. “So when WIT week rolled around this year, we got a text asking if I was in. I said, ‘Of course.’”
Through the WIT training, Bella learned all the skills to one day become a horse wrangler. She was also able to develop more responsibilities at camp, which included leading trail rides and helping with the mounting and dismounting of riders.
Bella took advantage of the situation by volunteering even more, helping out with several summer camps, in addition to the Yellow Breeches program.
For now, Bella plans to continue volunteering with Camp Hebron and taking lessons with her favorite horse, Benjie. She hopes to one day work with horses as a career.
“They’re just awesome,” Bella said about the horses she works with every day. “They’re just great at helping you heal.”
Christopher Hopkins is assistant editor/web of Central Penn Parent.