Exclusive interview to Alachua County Today Newspaper

W - Carousel Horses Newtown 2013Gentle Carousel Miniature Horses left their home in the Alachua/High Springs area to spend nearly two weeks in Newtown, Conn., at the request of the town and families to work directly with those most affected by the December tragedy.

NEWTOWN, CONN. – In the quaint New England town of Newtown, Conn., a town small enough that everyone knows everyone, the community came together once again with their financial resources, contacts and hearts to help heal their residents following the killing of 26 adults and children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in December.

Then they invited the Gentle Carousel Miniature Therapy Horses of High Springs and Alachua to help them.

While a variety of other groups have gone to Newtown in hopes of helping the community deal with the aftermath of the shootings, Gentle Carousel was the only group invited by the town and families to work directly with those most affected by the tragedy.

Following several days of private visits with family members, first responders and others, the group was asked to stay a few days longer to participate in additional community and private events with their horses.

The trip, which was originally planned for 7-10 days, was expanded by a few more days to provide family members of those slain to have more personal time with the Gentle Carousel horses.

“With travel and all, we will be away from Florida a little more than two weeks,” said Debbie Garcia-Bengochea. She also spoke about the warm welcome they received from residents of the small town. “We have been very fortunate,” she said. “Despite the snow and one of the coldest weeks they have had here, these people have warmly welcomed us into their family,” she said.

“The community has been arranging everything for us,” explained Garcia-Bengochea who, with her husband Jorge, founded Gentle Carousel, an all volunteer 501(c)(3) nonprofit charity, in 2002.

“The town loves the horses,” she said. The City of Newtown set up a library visit this past Saturday, Jan. 5 for the tiny horses. And because there had been no prior publicity about the event, the librarian cautioned that many people might not show up as there had been little traffic at the library since the shootings. With scant lead time, the town sent out an email notice that the horses were going to be at the library. More than 600 people with their children showed up. “We had to limit each group allowed into the library at one time to 150,” said Garcia-Bengochea.

They performed a modified version of their usual show with the horses as part of the story and in costumes, “which thoroughly delighted the children,” she said. The children had time after each show to visit with the horses, hug and pet them.

They did four shows that day. “The horses have been really amazing. Magic is at the top of her game. She is so good with the children. The kids have read her book and know about her. For some it’s a dream come true to actually hug the horses.”

This past Monday, the horses and their handlers set up in a large gym, and Sandy Hook families filed in to visit. “We were there for four hours, meeting with those families,” said Garcia-Begochea. Hundreds of people with their children as well as family members who had lost a loved one were there, seeking the comfort that the gentle horses bring.

“In a town as small as this, everyone knew someone who had been killed,” she said. “The kids shared some really intense things about where they were, how they survived and information about their friends who were shot. Everyone’s got a friend, relative, sibling or neighbor who was involved. Everybody is just so affected,” she said sadly.

An area for people to express their heart-felt grief and support for the survivors has attracted signs, children’s toys, flowers, plants, messages and more. “We took the horses to visit the memorial site,” she said. “We have been very careful to be respectful of people’s privacy. Most of our photos do not show the faces of the citizens and children, but do reflect what was going on at the time.”

She also observed that the first responders were all volunteers with families of their own, who are used to accidents and heart attacks. “The last murder they had here was 26 years ago,” she said. “It [the shootings] deeply affected them.”

Newtown representatives raised funds from individuals and groups and also obtained in-kind donations from large corporations including American Airlines, Avis Car Rental and Hampton Inn, among others. “We certainly couldn’t have made this trip without the help of the heated horse ambulances,” said Garcia-Bengochea. “It has been nine degrees here. Florida horses have shorter coats in the winter and could not have stood these temperatures otherwise.”

At the same time Newtown was raising money, local Florida and international donations were received in the High Springs office of Gentle Carousel. “The Lake City Council sent a donation and the people in their office also sent a separate donation to help us make this trip,” she said. Donations from school children in Brazil, the UK, Australia, South Africa and Afghanistan came in. “Our horses are better known internationally than locally,” she said. “The Daily Mail, a large newspaper in the UK, runs stories about us all the time.”

“We have had a tremendous amount of press coverage,” said Garcia-Bengochea. Stories about the trip to Connecticut and what the horses are doing there ran in USA Today on Jan. 8. CNN ran stories about the trip prior to the group’s departure from Florida. “We’ve been featured on CNN Headline News as well,” she said. “

“While we have been in Newtown, children with their allowance money have come up to us to donate to the horses being there,” she said. “It is inspiring. They are very gracious and grateful people in Newtown.”

“Under the worst of circumstances, the people of Newtown, Conn., have shown themselves to be the best of people,” said Garcia-Bengochea.

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