ATLANTA — A nonprofit horse camp in Atlanta is providing a healthy outlet for at-risk youth.
Lilly Morgan, the founder of Morgan Valley Ranch Academy, said horses help the teens better understand themselves.
"That horse shows you who you really, truly are inside," Morgan said. "If you're emotional, then he's emotional. If you're angry, then he's angry.”
Morgan knows those feelings all too well.
“It's hard when you're in survival mode, when you come home and there's nothing to eat on the table," Morgan said. "I lived that life in the streets. I was that kid.”
Now she's become the adult she needed back then.
"This changed my life," she said. “These are at risk children. Low income housing, the parent may be dealing with some type of drug issue they have to get away from."
Morgan said campers often come to her through word of mouth, but she also works with the juvenile justice and foster care systems in Georgia to identify students who may benefit from enrollment.
"Instead of the kids going to jail, depending on what they've done, the program is their court order," Morgan said. "They did the crime, so they have to pay the time, but they don't go to jail for it. They come to the ranch and take the time and when they leave, their records are expunged."
Loren Mckee,11, said the program has helped her open up.
“Seeing how everyone else was really open about themselves, it made me feel brave," Mckee said. “Horses are like humans with four legs. They feel the same emotions, so they kind of mirror off what you feel.”
For many campers, that mirror isn't always easy to face. High school freshman Nicole Yancy had a hard time when she first started the program.
“Before I came here, I was actually I was like a very angry person," Yancy said. "But, now I'm very happy, I learned to manage it a lot, you know? I feel safe over here.”
Morgan said each session of the camp contains a deeper lesson.
“You have a choice, you choose your day, you choose your life," Morgan emphasized to the campers. "You choose how you want to feel, nobody else.”
Jada Grable, 13, said she's found solace in the camp, after dealing with trouble and stresses at school.
“Peer pressure, cyber bullying, bullying in general," Grable said. "It’s getting crazy, crazier by the day. It's like you can’t handle it because we’re still young."
She said being with the horses has brought her newfound peace.
"It's like therapy to me, when the horse understands you," Grable said. "We don't have a lot of people in this world who do that."
Most campers eventually graduate and move on. Morgan said some come back.
“When this kid turned 18 he had nowhere else to go, he was homeless," Morgan recalled. "We came in, went inside the barn and he was asleep in the stall. I said, 'Why are you here?' And he says, 'I didn't have anywhere else to go and this is the safest place I knew.'"
So Morgan keeps the door open, and the lessons going.
“When you match a rescue horse with a rescue kid, you have a real bond," Morgan said.
And she'll remind whoever will listen that the path you lead is up to you.