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Two 4-H Clubs Go Far Beyond The Love Of Horses

Ask Maureen Janecek and Brenda Ellstrom about their 4-H clubs, and watch what happens.

They both start to tear up a little. Janecek, 36, talks about getting teenagers out of gangs. Ellstrom, 27, talks of acting as a surrogate parent to little kids who need help getting on the right track.

These two Valley moms are talking about a horse club, right?

“We’re not just showing horses,” Janecek corrects. “We’re teaching kids life skills.”

Janecek leads the Freedom Riders, a two-year-old club made up mostly of teenagers. Ellstrom founded Just Horsin’ Around, a club for younger riders, last September. Their own children are members of the clubs, too. There are 25 kids in Janecek’s club, 20 in Ellstrom’s.

The two teamed up in October when the older kids decided to adopt the club of younger riders. “All my kids were brand-new 4-Hers,” Ellstrom says. They didn’t know how to raise money or sponsor riding events, so the older kids decided to teach them.

Both women love horses. Janecek has a riding arena across the street from her Otis Orchards home. Her living room is filled with horse paintings. A sculpture of one sits on her living room table.

As a kid, Ellstrom raised $800 to pay her father back for buying her first horse. She babysat for $1 per hour.

But the women’s first love is children.

High-schoolers call Janecek for advice on filling out college applications. Ellstrom’s young horse folk call her to tell her when they get good grades or land parts in the school play.

Sometimes, the kids’ needs are more serious.

April DeGroot, president of the Freedom Riders, is a junior at East Valley High School and says she knows kids who would be in trouble, not horse clubs, without the influence of Janecek and Ellstrom. “(They) give them a feeling of family. You feel like you’re needed,” DeGroot says.

Janecek remembers a time she and members of her club drove past the Valley Mission Park horse arena and saw the building and fence there covered with gang graffiti.

The Freedom Riders painted it over the same day.

Club members also learn to work for causes, too. Both clubs are sponsoring the Shrine Western Games Classic July 19-21. People will compete in various Western riding events, but the real goal of the games is to raise money for the Shriners Hospital For Crippled Children.

Last year, an 11-year-old boy who is the brother of a 4-H member needed spinal surgery. Without it, he couldn’t run or jump around.

The Shriners paid for the surgery the boy needed.

Now members of the two 4-H clubs are raising money for the hospital. So far, kids have raised $2,800 in entry fees and $3,200 in corporate sponsorships.

Ellstrom says it teaches kids the same things she learned in 4-H and from paying back her father for that first horse: Responsibility and selfconfidence.

She and Janecek love passing it on.

“It’s a full-time job that you don’t get paid for with money, but with love and respect,” Ellstrom says. “We love the kids and we think they love us as much.”

, DataTimes ILLUSTRATION: Photo