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NATURAL THERAPIES: Ridgway organization uses horses for healing

RIDGWAY — An Elk County woman is sharing her passion for horses and healing through a nonprofit organization dedicated to helping people.

Big Maple Farm’s Natural Therapies, located at 877 Long Level Road in Ridgway, is an all-volunteer effort run out of a four-generation family farm facility.

Founder Amanda Balon said she is the fifth generation for the farm, and it’s been in the family for 118 years. About three years ago, she decided to combine her love for horses and her masters degree in counseling to start her own nonprofit organization.

She researched and visited other places that provide natural coping methods through animal interaction and therapeutic horticulture, and after seeing the success rates, says she knew it was what God had planned for her to do.

Not only can horses rescue people from whatever hardships they may be facing, but all of BMFNT’s eight horses were rescued or donated to them, Balon said. Each horse has a story — some endured an isolated and lonely life, whereas others could just on longer be cared for. Each meets certain criteria before being matched with a rider.

There are two miniature horses — Blackberry and Beauty — who are used for 4H youth projects and small animal assisted therapy sessions.

Therapeutic riding can help almost anyone with any diagnosis, including depression and anxiety, special needs conditions and veterans with post traumatic stress disorder, Balon said.

“Hooves for Heroes” is a free 10-week riding program for veterans. Other horse-related programs geared toward veterans with PTSD have been successful, Balon said, which is why she wanted to see the results firsthand. She is hoping to see participation for this program grow among local veterans, and is willing to offer it year-round if someone is interested.

Averaging about 21 riders a week, the facility also offers regular riding lessons for people looking to enhance their skills. There are two other regular riding instructors.

“These are just natural ways for people to cope,” she said. “They can come out and experience the horses in a natural environment.”

One rider named George, a toddler diagnosed with Cerebral Palsy, is now conquering things with which he used to struggle, such as sitting up and riding on his own, walking independently and gaining muscle strength. George has also developed a special bond with Zip, a 23-year-old Quarter horse.

Balon’s son suffers from sensory and anxiety issues, and she has seen riding and caring for a horse help in calming him down, she says.

“It gives him something to look forward to and relaxes him,” she said.

Riding can be beneficial for youth, assisting with their hand-eye coordination, helping them focus and teaching them discipline and responsibility, Balon said. Through their 4H lease program, riders can lease a horse for $10 a month, and are solely responsible for necessary care, such as brushing and tacking the horse.

Handling such a large animal and getting the horse to listen and cooperate isn’t always an easy task, Balon says. Through programs like these, she has seen the confidence grow significantly in some riders.

“To see the horses grow and to see the people grow, too, it’s just incredible.”

To supplement the facility’s outdoor arena, the ultimate goal is to eventually raise enough money to build an indoor one, so lessons need not be cancelled due to inclement weather, Balon said. An indoor arena would have a handicapped-accessible ramp that would be suitable for all riders, she said.

Balon’s parents, Ray and Michelle McMinn, run other services out of Big Maple Farm, including a market that sells fresh produce such as corn, vegetables, potatoes, eggs, whole chickens and cuts of lamb.

The organization offers other activities, such as Paint n Sips on the farm and field trips during which youth and camp programs come and visit, Balon said. The organization’s Easter Egg hunt brought more than 500 people out to the farm.

Big Maple Farm’s Natural Therapies thrives solely on grants and donations, Balon said, and is always hoping for more volunteers. All money collected from sessions, fundraisers and grants goes back into caring for the animals, the facility, equipment and administrative costs.

BMFNT will host a three-day Fall Festival fundraiser on Sept. 29-30 at 11 a.m., and Oct. 6 at 11 a.m., offering hay and pony rides, games, pumpkin picking and more. Entry fee is $10.

For more information, visit the BMFNT Facebook page or

Business Connections Luncheon
Penn Highlands officials discuss expansion plans at Chamber luncheon

DuBOIS — Penn Highlands Healthcare CEO Steven Fontaine and Penn Highlands DuBois President John Sutika discussed the $111 million master facilities expansion plan, which is expected to create approximately 400 jobs across the region over the next three years, at Thursday’s Business Connections luncheon hosted by the Greater DuBois Chamber of Commerce at Luigi’s Villa.

A total of 106 people attended the event and chamber Executive Director Jodi August said she was thrilled with the turnout.

“Our Greater DuBois Chamber is proud of the many business members that came to hear of Penn Highlands expansion projects,” said August after the presentation. “We’re excited for the expansion of services, as well as the job creation this brings to our area.”

Thursday’s event was one of the biggest this year, said August, noting that 80-plus business members attended April’s Business Connections luncheon, which featured Secretary of the state’s Department of Community and Economic Development Dennis M. Davin.

The next scheduled Business Connections on Nov. 8 will include a presentation by Curt Schroder of the Pennsylvania Coalition for Civil Justice Reform, August said.

The Penn Highlands plan, to be implemented over the next three years, will modernize, improve and expand upon the services Penn Highlands Healthcare offers patients at its four hospital campuses and numerous outpatient facilities in the 12-county region it serves.

The projects include:

  • Expansion and renovation of the Penn Highlands DuBois East behavioral health facility;
  • A new five-story annex at Penn Highlands DuBois West;
  • A new Emergency Department that will serve as a Level III trauma center;
  • A new three-story building housing Centers of Excellence in orthopedics, pediatrics and women’s health;
  • Emergency Department renovations at Penn Highlands Clearfield;
  • A new three-story Brookville Medical Office Building;
  • Renovations at Pinecrest Manor
  • A new two-story Clarion Outpatient Facility.

With the exception of PH Elk, which modernized most of its acute care hospital in 2001 and 2012, Fontaine said PHH has a collection of older facilities built in the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s.

Over time, it is important to improve facilities to keep up with the competition and with technology, Fontaine said. That’s one of the premises behind the construction strategy.

Other issues included capacity constraints because of the growing need for healthcare in this region, particularly at DuBois, Fontaine said.

The PHH Executive Team, with hospital presidents, have engaged the services of KTH Architects to facilitate the master facility planning process, Fontaine said.

The projects are to be funded through a combination of operating revenues, bond financing and charitable donations.

Penn Highlands CEO explains economic impact of growth

DuBOIS — The question of how many jobs it will take to accommodate the growth of Penn Highlands Healthcare was addressed by CEO Steven Fontaine at Thursday’s Business Connections luncheon hosted by the Greater DuBois Chamber of Commerce.

Fontaine broke the number of jobs up into clinical and non-clinical.

Clinical, he said, means doctors, nurse practitioners, physician assistants, nurses, and therapists

“We need to tally 195 over three years,” said Fontaine with regard to clinical positions.

“We analyze now every year how many providers we need to cover all our services and now we continue to grow, we have to know how many doctors or mid-levels we need to recruit. This is already (included) in that,” he said.

“We’ve recruited successfully over the two years I’ve been here, minimally, 50 doctors or nurse practitioners per year, and this year our goal is another 50,” Fontaine said. “We have that many gaps as far as needs and access so that’s all in there. But right around 200 professionals needed and then intake coordinators, those who take referrals who make sure the folks are admitted to the system, and then clerks and schedulers. About 86 of those staff so it’s a tally from this section, 281 over three years.”

The non-clinical side includes food service, environmental services and maintenance and security positions.

“On the East Campus, we currently have a cafeteria but those needs will expand greatly with increase of beds and patients, so of course you have to naturally grow with the scene,” Fontaine said. “The West Campus, it’s about 23 approximately, and then of course housekeeping or environmental, 46 in total, and then maintenance and security. You add those all up, it’s another 88.”

Both the clinical and non-clinical categories is a total of about 370, he said.

“There are more than this. This is conservatively speaking, and this only pertains to the DuBois campuses. It has nothing to do with all the other projects like Clarion, when you have at least 30 starting out, if not, going to 50, 60, or 70, depending on the demand and the services offered,” Fontaine said.

The direct economic impact to the region at large, according to the Hospital Association of Pennsylvania, Penn Highlands spent $391 million in salaries, wages, supplies and vendors. If broken down by salaries, it approximately $183 million.

“Of course that’s going to increase as we expand,” Fontaine said.

The figures showed the average salary is approximately $61,000 at Penn Highlands.

The ripple benefits shows an approximate $485 million impact, he said.

“If you add those up, it’s about a $900 million impact to the region for Penn Highlands being here and offering the jobs and the services. That is huge. And I believe that through the projects and the growth that we explained today, that would only grow a lot more over the next three to five years,” Fontaine said.

Photo by Chris Wechtenhiser 

DuBois' Taylor Smith (18) blasts a kill past the block attempt of Brookville's Lauren Hergert (12) during third-set action Thursday night.