A love of horses and a dedicated trainer leads Alexandra (Zanders) Pope to the 2011 Special Olympics in Greece
By Judy Keenan
Two and a half years ago, when Brenda Tri, the owner andtrainer of Diamondsedge Farm in West Barnstable, met Alexandra (Zanders) Popefor the first time Zanders was morbidly obese, two hundred and forty-four pounds,as a result of her insatiable appetite, a symptom of Prader-Willi Syndrome (PWS). She was also lethargic, did notinteract with others and did not speak much. Zanders was a new resident in one of the Latham Centers group homes onthe Cape for young people suffering from PWS. Her parents in Connecticut had sent pictures to Brenda of Zanders ridinghorses which was a passion for her from the age of ten. Her weight gain prevented her from ridinghorses. What has happened in those two and a half years with the strong willof Zanders, the compassion and skill of Brenda combined with the dedicated andsensitive staff at Latham Centers is the stuff of miracles. Remember the movie Rudy? Zanders is all that and more. As Brenda says,"She is a very special girl." Actually,all of them are pretty special.
Prader-Willi Syndrome is named after the doctors inSwitzerland who discovered it in the 1950s. It is a genetic disorder affecting one in every 15,000 births and is themost common cause of life threatening obesity in young adults. PWS can now be tested for genetically. Symptoms include insatiable appetite andslight mental retardation. Children used to die of enlarged hearts from PWS astheir hearts struggled with the strain of excessive weight. Latham Centers provides a "controlled"environment where compulsive eating is replaced by healthy foods and exercise,both mental and physical. Zanders's grouphome in West Yarmouth has four residents and seven staff members sharingresponsibilities for their care seven days a week, twenty four hours a day.There is no known cure for PWS.
There are eleven horses and two mini donkeys on Brenda's seven and a half acres,all hidden from view from the road with no hint of what lies behind that lovelywhite colonial home. Cape Cod Community College tennis courts are barely visiblein the distance behind free roaming horses in tall grass and scattered trees.Moving here from her forty-eight acre farm in Washington State, Brenda had achallenge finding enough property to house her growing stable of horses. Thestables and riding rink were built after she purchased the home. The horses come from Germany, England, Holland,Hollywood, Canada and many other places and they include pintos, miniatureponies, chestnuts, racing, mustang, etc. It's a real mélange and Brenda has made the horses available to manyspecial needs programs such as those at Latham Centers, Capabilites, the RiverviewSchool, Special Olympics.
Zanders's hard work led to her ultimate success at the 2011World Special Olympics in Greece where she won a silver medal in the Equitation competition and a gold medal in the Trails competition. She says she got to see the Acropolis and herparents were able to come and see her there. "It's always hot there," she says. Brenda taught her well and made sure she wascomfortable with many horses so that when she got to Greece and was given ahorse she did not know named, Desperado, she was unfazed.
At the farm, Zanders saddles up Belle, a very large greymare. Brenda shows us Belle's tattooednumber on the inside of her upper lip; a number she was given when she wasracing. Brenda remarks, "Zanders haschosen the most difficult horse on the farm to ride. Belle is frisky and not easy to manage."
Zanders takes Belle through the course with instructions fromBrenda.
In addition to her achievements riding, Zanders has graduatedfrom a unique two-year program offered by Cape Cod Community College called Project Forward. One of only two suchprograms in the United States, it offers mentally-handicapped students a choice of ninevocational skills in a two-year certification program. Zanders's certificate is in Animal Care.
Diamondsedge offers equine therapy, horsemanship, ridinglessons, Pony Club, beach riding and birthday parties. Three of Brenda's volunteers today are Pony Clubmembers from Camp Lyndon. Bryanna,"Bumpy" (a nickname having to do with a previous hair style that looked odd inher helmet) and Tatiana work with the horses, even shoveling poop, because theylove the animals and are learning to care for them as well as ride. They eachexpress the dream to be animal trainers or professional riders. Zandersexpresses her desire to "learn more stuff, more advanced that I don'tknow." Brenda expresses a desire tostart a 501 C Corporation for an Adopt a Horse Program. Their drive makes anything seem possible.