From the Front Lines: LCS’ Equestrian Executive Director

From the Front Lines is a monthly Q&A series from Senior Housing News. Our aim is to get out of the C-suite from time to time to focus on some of the interesting and dynamic people who work at the forefront of the senior living industry. Have a colleague who does something cool and works in a senior living community? Drop us a line.

Bobbi KelleyWhile some senior living providers have loosened their accepted animal policies in recent years, it’s still fairly uncommon to see livestock at a community. Not so at Clarendale of Mokena, a Life Care Services (LCS) location in Mokena, Illinois.

Over the summer, the community’s executive director, Bobbi Kelley, organized an all-breed charity horse competition at a local fairgrounds that raised over $9,200 and made a splash in the local community.

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Senior Housing News recently chatted with Kelley to learn how her passion for horses connects with her role as an ED:

SHN: Describe the community where you work.

Kelley: We just just hit our two-year anniversary in October. We were one of the new developments with Ryan Companies and LCS being equity partners. We’re 156 units. We have 60 independent, 56 assisted and 40 memory care.

I joined LCS about a year ago, so the community was open for about a year when I joined. We are 100% occupied, very well-received in the community and in the market.

How long have you worked with horses?

I’ve been showing competitively since I was four years old. My parents were in the racehorse business. We were your typical Midwest farming family. You know, we belonged to 4-H and the local county fairs.

We took care of our animals on the farm. We would compete with them. So, I developed a passion for it. I started competing more seriously the older I became. I actually have competed all over the United States and Canada, in fact. I’ve shown and competed many different breeds.

Most recently, I have competed with quarter horses. I actually met my husband doing it. I think that for a lot of people, we find our own outlets for stress. For me, just growing up on the farm, it was my personal time. It was my way to escape from the pressures of schoolwork or regular work as I grew. I would go out to the barn and ride. But then it became a passion that I wanted to perfect the art of competitive horsemanship.

What do you do in a horse show?

I describe it to people who aren’t familiar with it like ballroom dancing. It is a team sport, it’s just that your partner happens to have four legs. You have to be in complete harmony with them, you have to think as one. In a way, it’s a little bit like showing a dog, where you have obstacles and they judge you on breed characteristics and body mass and hair coat.

But then, beyond the breed characteristics, it becomes part maneuvers. When you’re doing maneuvers, the horse and you have to act as one. The idea is the rider doesn’t even move up there. It looks effortless, but in fact it’s like driving a fighter jet. Every little move of your foot means something because they’re so trained. A subtle change, a shift in weight from one side of the saddle to the other, or more pressure on one foot or the other means something to them. It’s really difficult even though the idea is to make it look super easy.

To me, it was a competition against myself. I always wanted to do better. I always said, I never lose, I either win or I learn. That’s truly a mantra of mine because it kind of follows through to life. You have to learn, no matter what. That’s been my passion for the 50 years. I’m 54 now.

Tell me about your horses.

I always had a horse farm when I lived at my parents’, but then I got married and my husband and I had a horse farm and we competed all over. Unfortunately, my husband passed away. It’s certainly very hard work, but it’s more than just hard work. It’s not something you can do without an extra set of hands. You can’t mend a fence by yourself. So, I ended up selling my personal farm after I lost my husband.

But I boarded, which is essentially just renting space for a fee per month. So I have two horses left. Years ago, I had many. But now, I have two horses that I compete with. I keep them close to my house. They’re just like family to me. We compete all over. We’ve had national champions. I’ve had world champions. We’ve been there, done that.

What are their names?

The one I am promoting pretty heavily, I love his name. His name is Dr. Evil. I really call him Zack. His registered official name is Dr. Evil. We’ve just done really well. The other is Troy.

How did you arrive at the name Dr. Evil?

When they’re purebreds, you have to name them when they’re babies. The breeder who named him when he was just a foal [had a son] who was into Austin Powers. The son named him Dr. Evil.

This horse, if he could be a person, his name would be Archie Bunker. He loves to crab, this horse. But yet, you get on his back and he just performs. He has a little bit of a standoff personality and he’s just a little bit crabby. He’s not evil, but he’s just, Archie Bunker.

Describe the charity horse competition you hosted in August.

LCS had a $400,000 goal [to donate to Alzheimer’s research] this year. They challenged each of our individual communities…to come up with something that really was meaningful and could connect to fundraising to support those with Alzheimer’s and for the research. We call it Saving the Memories.

The horse show was a very impromptu event. In June, we received an email from the CEO and President [of LCS] challenging us to find a way to connect our community to something meaningful.

I was reading this email…and one of the lines that really impacted me was, philanthropy is linked to a passion that you incorporate into your fundraising efforts. The thing that I love is horses. That’s when I decided I was going to put on a competition.

When you go to a competition, everybody who competes has an entry fee. They compete for prize money. We went to sponsors all over and we raised the money for the prize money. And then we charged for them to enter. But all the money we got from the entry fees went to Alzheimer’s. All of the expenses were paid through charitable contributions from local businesses. They were so excited to help us because it was something new and different. It was something the public could enjoy and watch and learn about.

We did a lot of explaining during the day. They learned, the spectators learned. I started putting out the word to all my friends, and I got on Facebook, and we just started networking. And I got a crowd of [about 200] people together.

The email was in June and the show was in August? That’s not much time to organize.

The cool part about it was this all happened in about six weeks’ time. It was just literally, OK, let’s do this. Everybody on my team was like, you have got to be kidding. A horse show, what’s that? But I was like, just follow my lead, we’ll walk through this. It ended up being a team-building exercise at the community level. We really worked together and it was something fun and different. Everybody volunteered their time. People were cooking burgers. All the food, everything, was donated.

We brought in an intergenerational mix of volunteers. And kids that had volunteer hours that they needed to use, they helped run the gate and collect admissions and sell raffle tickets. We had entertainment that came in and they gave it to us free of charge. It just became bigger and bigger and bigger in such a short time.

Did Clarendale of Mokena residents participate, too?

Absolutely. Residents, their families, employees, their families.

Is there any overlap between raising or riding horses and working in senior living?

In the past, at other communities where I’ve been executive director, I have had different events that were outdoors, like annual picnics. I’ve always brought my horses in and had rides for the kids. I’ve also done exhibitions where I came to the residents. They could see it and they just felt such pride because they felt so connected. It was like every time I went out into the show ring, they were out there, too.

Do you ever bring horses to the community or incorporate them in your activities?

This year, after the horse show, that piqued the [residents’] interests. So, our activity director put together a little trip to a local farm. They spent an afternoon on a nice day and they loved it. We brought some of our assisted living and memory care residents on a bus trip and they went out to a full working farm. They were able to interact.

And it’s not just limited to horses. We’ve done it on cattle farms and whatnot. So many people in the generation we serve, they grew up with those kind of animals. It really brought them back to a place in their life where they had so many stories to tell.

What other animals do you work with?

My director of operations…when it got to the point he had extended the offer to take over Clarendale of Mokena, I told him that I would love to, but that we needed to talk about the dog.

He said, the dog? You mean like, a real dog? I said, with me comes a dog. We’re a package deal. As much as I would love to work with LCS and take over the community, I can’t do that without my dog. You have to understand that I believe very heavily in pet therapy. I have an eight-pound dog that’s four years old and all she’s ever done was senior living. She loves unconditionally and defuses a lot of situations. She has helped many people through many turmoils through their lives through losses and disappointments. Where I go, she goes.

Clarendale of Mokena was a new portfolio for LCS at the time. He actually had to go to the board. They died laughing.

Needless to say, the dog is Jolee and Jolee is here every single day. The residents, I don’t know that they could live without her. It goes back to the philosophy that sometimes the best thing for someone who is struggling through life is just that unconditional, no-talking connection. I’ve tried to have that with Jolee, and we just kind of branched out with the whole horse thing.

This interview was edited for clarity and length.

Read our Oct. 13 From the Front Lines about Carol Koty, competitive chef and dining services coordinator for a Brookdale Senior Living (NYSE: BKD) community in Wilton, Connecticut. 

Written by Tim Regan

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