By Abel Salas
Special to the San Fernando Valley Sun/el Sol
Anton Ortiz-Luís, 10, did his best to guide the miniature horse on a walk around an open-air outdoor corral assembled on the grounds of the Discovery Cube in Sylmar. With both of his hands gripping a short length of rope attached to the horse’s nylon bridle, it was all he could do to stay a half-step ahead or neck and neck with his new four-legged friend.
“His name is Frederick,” Ortiz-Luís said, indicating the unusually small pony at his side, in reply to an observer with a notepad and taking pictures from just outside the temporary steel fence made from sections fastened end-to-end with heavy-duty zip ties.
When the little horse turned abruptly and began marching off with short, strong and sure-footed steps in the direction of several pygmy goats, Ortiz-Luís’ face erupted with sudden, wide-eyed surprise. Seeing his anxiety, Deborah Rocha stepped over quickly to remind him that the horse understood and responded to spoken commands like “stop” and “forward,” demonstrating them aloud while he held the guide rope.
An exclusive exhibitor at the Fourth Annual Mental Health Symposium presented here on June 11, Rocha founded and serves as the executive director of SRD Straightening Reigns, a mental health support services and treatment program which uses horses in Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy (EAP).
The widely acknowledged therapeutic program is “about respect and responsibility,” Rocha said. “A therapist sees the energy between a client and the horse, then asks ‘how does it feel?’ It’s a learning tool and a way to communicate.”
An outspoken advocate for the mental well-being and emotional stability of children and teens, Rocha, 59, came to champion efforts on their behalf at an age when most people contemplate retirement. The decision to focus her energy, resources and personal savings on the health and welfare of young people in crisis, she shared, was the result of a devastating personal tragedy.
“I started it 11 years ago when I lost my middle daughter to suicide,” Rocha said of the Samantha Rocha-Dyer Foundation SRD Straightening Reins, a Santa Clarita-based nonprofit.
Launched with an on-campus after-school “safe space” program, her organization has grown steadily. Now staffed with licensed therapists, its wide-ranging support services include counseling for individuals, families and groups related to peer pressure, bullying, eating disorders, substance abuse and more.
In addition, it offers workshops for caregivers, leadership training and confidence building.
In 2021, the organization impacted approximately 6,000 students, Rocha noted. Unfortunately, the milestone was reached primarily via self-financed pro bono school visits due to the effect of COVID-19 on the economy, she said.
“All this, the operation, liability insurance, transportation, assembly… breaking it down costs about $670 an hour,” Rocha said, waving her hand to indicate the miniature horses, the small herd of African Pygmy goats, and the fencing system.
Rocha is endorsed by FundaMental Change, which presents the annual symposium, as a “partner.” FundaMental Change is a nonprofit organization established in 2017 and is guided by founder and president Angela Padilla – the wife of Sen. Alex Padilla – which seeks to “raise awareness about, reduce stigma associated with, and fund supportive services for people living with mental illness while also working to improve both the quality of life and the well-being of people who care for them,” she said.
Reared in the San Fernando Valley by a single mother who was diagnosed with a serious mental disorder, Padilla said it became necessary for her to assume roles as a daughter, a caregiver and an advocate at an early age. Because her family took “an honest and open approach to my mother’s condition, despite its stigma,” Padilla felt encouraged to pursue a psychology degree in college.
“It was important for me to study more about my mother’s condition, especially given the lack of information and support outside of my family,” she said.
With all the “grief, fear and loss,” endured by families throughout the greater San Fernando Valley community as a result of the pandemic, Padilla said understanding the “unprecedented stress levels and trauma associated with that, made… healing… a priority.” Accordingly, she and her team made supporting families who experienced challenges as a result of the coronavirus the primary goal of the symposium this year.
Among the nationally and internationally prominent experts as well as celebrated guest speakers who participated in the symposium and simultaneous online livestream were: emcee Michelle Valles; Sen. Alex Padilla; Los Angeles Kings Growth & Inclusion Specialist and American Hockey League Scout Blake Bolden; Clinical Psychologist and CEO of the Luminarias Institute, Inc. Dr. José Cárdenas; Dr. Alejandra Acuña, LCSW, Psychiatric Social Worker, Los Angeles Unified School District and Associate Professor of social work at Cal State University, Northridge (CSUN); Franklin Romero, MSW, LCSW, and a Psychiatric Social Worker with the Los Angeles County Department of Mental Health; Dr. Ilan Shapiro, Chief Health Correspondent and Medical Affairs Officer, AltaMed; and Sophia Mendoza, Director, Los Angeles Unified School District.
Guests at the Discovery Cube can also experience “Emotions at Play” with Pixar’s “Inside Out,” an innovative, first-of-its-kind interactive exhibit based on the award-winning film. On display at the Discovery Cube children’s science museum, the exhibit enables visitors to explore one of the five core emotions featured in the popular film — Joy, Sadness, Anger, Disgust and Fear — with hands-on and digital experiences.