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Hours from Penn State, children's charity shows new way to heal

Eric Adelson
Yahoo Sports

STATE COLLEGE, Pa. – Penn State is trying desperately to move on from its past, with a new season, a new coach and new leaders in a new administration. But while the school had a nationally televised opportunity to start a "new chapter" on Saturday in Happy Valley, there was true healing being done only a half-day's drive away. On a farm in the small town of Lake Ariel, not far from Scranton, Saturday morning meant another chance for victims of child abuse to feel better.

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Strawberry is the horse that bonded with one victim and helped launch Marley's Mission. (Special to Y! Sports)

There are no victims of former assistant coach Jerry Sandusky there, as they are all adults now, but the novel approach taken at a place called Marley's Mission is a rare insight into how abuse victims begin to recover from the most horrible of suffering. And although it's correct to say nothing good came out of the scandal involving Sandusky, the subsequent attention drawn to places like Marley's Mission may turn out to save kids who might otherwise have nowhere to turn.

The story begins with tragedy. In July 2009, a 5-year-old girl was brutally attacked in her home by a complete stranger. The man had attended a family picnic, introducing himself as the friend of a family friend, and he entered the girl's room after she had gone to sleep. Then he savagely raped the little girl, leaving her with her severe injuries. Her parents, completely distraught, took their daughter, left their home and never came back. The rapist, named Felix Montoya, was eventually sent to prison. But the girl's fate was potentially much worse.

Her parents tried intensive therapy of all kinds – talk therapy, art therapy, everything. Nothing worked. Even the best psychologists have trouble getting children to describe their feelings, especially when those feelings are so unbearable. So the therapist of this little girl, a woman named Ann Cook, began to think of other ways to get her to share her feelings. The girl loved a guinea pig, named Marley. And that led to another idea that changed not only the girl's life, but the lives of more than 160 other victims.

Press coverage of the assault and conviction drew an outpouring of sympathy and money. The family moved into a new house and bought their daughter a present: a horse named Strawberry. And soon something changed in the girl. She spent hours around the horse, petting him, feeding him and just walking around with him. The horse became a companion. And then a minor miracle took place.

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Slowly, the girl began to speak. She talked about what she thought was going on in the horse's mind. And in doing so, the girl began to share what was buried inside her heart.

That proved to be the seed of a cause, started by the girl's mother, April Loposky. She teamed up with Gene Talerico, the assistant district attorney who prosecuted Montoya, and Cook, the therapist, to start a horse farm dedicated to helping victims of child abuse.

"You get to have a conversation about the horse with the child," Talerico says. "Instead of talking in first person, now we're saying, well, the horse is behaving this way because of this. The [children] superimpose their struggles on the horse. The horse's struggle becomes their struggles."

One year to the day after the rape, Marley's Mission opened. "We wanted it to go from a day of hurt to a day of hope," Talerico says.

That is what's happened. Marley's Mission was named "Best New Charity" in 2011. And that was before the awful news of the Sandusky scandal broke. Referrals increased sizably as Sandusky's victims came forward and bravely testified this summer.

"The strength of survivors was crucial," says Talerico. "It allows people to be buoyed by the courage of others. There are more people inquiring as to what we do and how we do it. When this was on the forefront and people were saying, ‘No more, this is no longer a secret,' the ripple effect of that is incredible."

Marley's Mission now has six therapists, 10 horses and four equine specialists. It serves approximately 80 children, at no cost to their families. On a typical Saturday morning, there are up to a dozen kids at the farm. There is no riding for the children, who are ages 5 to 18. Instead, they walk with the horse and care for the animal while both the therapist and an ever-present equine expert look on.

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For one boy we'll refer to as "Vale," Marley's Mission has been life-changing. He was abused between the ages of 6 and 8, and he faced all kinds of hurdles to recovery, including an eating disorder. But Vale says he felt comfortable almost right away with one of the horses, named Lacy, and as soon as he got into the car for the ride home after visiting Marley's Mission last year, he turned to his mom and said, "I'm hungry."

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Marley's Mission has used horses to build a connection with child-abuse victims. (Special to Y! Sports)

"The connection I had with that one horse was really awesome," Vale says. "I felt like I really got to know her. I didn't feel like it was just an animal. They really have a sense of how they affect people. They understand how the people are feeling. Around children, they have to be safer about where they are stepping. They can't actually understand ‘I'm sad today,' but they can tell by the way you act."

Vale is now 15, and he says he's "a lot better." He returned to the farm this summer to help out. He says Marley's Mission has not only allowed him to be more comfortable with his own feelings, but also to better express himself to other people.

The hard work of therapy shouldn't be diminished here; survivors of these heinous crimes will work to overcome their pasts as long as they live. But for victims and families, the idea that there is something that can be done to make a child feel better is the most reassuring feeling imaginable. When asked if equine therapy really works, Talerico is almost gleeful. "I've spend two decades doing this stuff," he says. "The successes of this kind of therapy are remarkable."

Marley's Mission is moving to a newer, bigger farm. Plans are to open it on the fourth anniversary of that unspeakable 2009 crime. The new land will be closer to the center of the state, to help children from a wider span of Pennsylvania.

And most importantly, the little girl who was raped that night is still healing. Talerico remembers seeing her in the hospital after the attack, desperately wondering what could possibly be done for a child so young and so hurt.

He remembers the look on her face, but also the design on her hospital gown. It had unicorns and horses.

"I guess it was fate," he says.

Penn State football will continue to be a reminder of terrible things that happened over the past years, but the hope is it can also remind millions of quieter places built for heroism and healing.

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