Whether she’s in the classroom or out in the stables, Debra “Deb” Ekdahl has always had a strong passion for helping others. The eighth grade Willowcreek Middle School English teacher has found a unique way to inspire her students both in and out of the classroom through introducing them to therapy horses. In turn, it has made for some of the most memorable moments for the kids and four-legged friends alike, something Ekdahl will cherish forever.
Ekdahl's love for horses spans over the course of four decades, and she enjoys being around them whenever possible. In addition to her work as a teacher, Ekdahl also volunteers at Exceptional Equestrians Unlimited in Hobart, an organization that helps give riding lessons to children with special needs.
Through personal time spent with horses as well as her work at Exceptional Equestrians, Ekdahl has realized just how much a horse can positively affect those around them. She wanted to share that experience with the students in her classroom and went to school officials in hopes she could make this happen.
“I have three horses of my own and have been involved with horses for over 40 years. I bought a pony named Sugar that I wanted to use as a therapy horse, and I approached my superintendent saying that our kids need this,” said Ekdahl.
Ekdahl takes the time to get to know her students, whether that be by surveys in the classroom or through conversations. After learning about some of the struggles they were facing in their lives, she decided to combine her passion for teaching with her love for horses, and asked if her students could meet her four-legged friends.
“We have had some really bad things happen in the lives of these kids which made me want to bring the therapy pony in. I asked them if I could bring her to the school so the kids could fall in love with her and help them be happier. One thing I love about Portage schools is that they are pretty open to new things,” said Ekdahl.
Ekdahl has gone above and beyond to benefit her students. One of her most memorable moments as a teacher was when she wrote a grant that was successfully funded, which then allowed Ekdahl to create a plethora of new learning opportunities for her students.
“I wrote a Lilly Foundation grant and got it funded. The name of the grant was equine therapy and mindfulness in the classroom. Everything I've learned from training horses I use in my classroom, like building trust,” said Ekdahl. “They need people that trust them and need people that are patient with them.”
The grant has also allowed Ekdahl to incorporate a variety of different and interesting teaching techniques into her classroom. With the help of this grant, Ekdahl can make each day exciting for the students and help them look forward to their future.
“Part of that grant gives me the chance to go to different stables and look at abused horses. I am able to watch the kids change while working with the horses, and it's this connection that they have that heals one another. It's amazing. I just sat there and I watched a horse that is so nervous and anxious connect with a kid,” said Ekdahl.
Prior to being a teacher, Ekdahl received her degree from Indiana University Northwest and was in a different role in the Portage Township School System. While she enjoyed the position, her roots were firmly planted in being a teacher, and her love for the profession eventually drew her back to the classroom.
“I spent eight years on the Portage school board, and I wanted to get back in the trenches with the teachers. I left the school board so I could teach in the district. I wanted the hands-on part of things,” said Ekdahl.
Looking forward, Ekdahl has high aspirations and tons of excitement in regards to her future. She has found her calling through using horses to bring joy to others, and can’t imagine herself doing anything else no matter where she is in life.
“When I retire, my full time gig will be doing therapy for kids using horses,” Ekdahl said.