There are moments in life that are just meant to be…times when things align so perfectly and allow us to reach a new level. For Carousel Ranch and all of us who work here – this was one of those moments. Just days before Heart of the West, we received an email from Nastya Popandopulos who lives in Kyiv, Ukraine. She shared that she and Victoria Kokaleva were in the process of developing an equine therapy program aimed at providing support and healing to Ukrainian war veterans and children who have been directly affected by the frontlines. She shared her vision of a creating a program that provides a safe and nurturing environment where participants can interact with horses, fostering a sense of connection, trust, and empowerment. A place where they aim to address various trauma, anxiety, and stress, while promoting emotional resilience and personal growth.
In early September, an initial zoom meeting with Denise formed a true connection. Nastya shared that she herself had been experiencing some mental health issues from the constant daily stress. She explained how Victoria invited her to her ranch and told the story of how that day, being on a horse for the first time – was the first time she had felt calm since the war began. And in that moment, she knew that she wanted to share that feeling with others.
Nastya was coming to the US in mid-September, invited by the US Department of State as the one chosen delegate from Ukraine – where she would be part of the IVLP (International Visitor Leadership Program) Social Entrepreneur program. Though it didn’t seem possible at first – they were able to extend her visa so that she could come to Carousel Ranch for two weeks to train.
Nastya quickly became part of the Carousel Ranch family and each member of our team bonded with her in such an immediate and unexpected way. She learned quickly, participated in the programs, worked in lessons and was able to learn so much. She collaborated with all of the Ranch staff, while working closely with Denise, Becky and Taylor to establish Victory Center in Kyiv. This groundbreaking initiative responds to the invasion in Ukraine…literally transforming trauma into triumph.
Though she returned to Ukraine at the end of October, the relationships continue. She and Denise continue to work on her non-profit status, program development and fundraising concepts while Becky continues to be there to provide guidance on working with students. In addition while here, we introduced her to Bob Horrell from Military Animal Project (a long-time friend of Carousel Ranch) who will advise her and offer guidance for working with the veterans. There are also plans for Victoria and Nastya to return for future training, and one day for Becky and Denise to visit their program in Ukraine.
In essence, Victory Center will be an international extension of the work done at Carousel Ranch using equestrian therapy as a core component to address trauma, anxiety and stress. Today, Victory Center is serving two veterans and planning to start their first child in the months to come – similar to how we began with one student and one horse in Becky’s backyard. Despite being on two different continents – the connection is strong and we have nothing but confidence in Nastya, Victoria and Victory Center and the great things that will come of this collaboration.
Nastya was selected for IVLP based on her incredible work with helping to establish the PR Army (an independent, non-profit organization) – dedicated to helping global media tell the accurate story of the war through the perspectives of Ukrainian experts, authorities and witnesses.