Though she’s now retired after two decades of teaching physical education, Laurie Bell still spends a lot of time in schools.
“I just get to take horses with me when I go inside now,” she says.
As executive director of Mini Joys Inc., Bell uses her crew of miniature horses to put on educational programs at different schools around the area. She spends 50 to 60 hours a week managing the day-to-day operations of the nonprofit organization and wrangling her three miniature horses, a miniature donkey, and about 50 volunteers.
For Bell, the extra hours are more than worth it. “Knowing that I’ve built up a child’s self-confidence, and changed their thoughts about themselves and what they can accomplish, and hopefully inspire them to be all they can be, that keeps me going, for sure,” she says.
At Mini Joys, the goal is to bring joy to people who could use a little extra happiness. In addition to their work in schools, Bell and her team of volunteers bring the horses to children’s hospitals and veterans centers. She also welcomes kids and their families to her ranch to spend extra time with the horses.
Bell has always loved horses. She jokes that “pony” was one of her first words, and she’s owned horses and ponies almost all her life since she was six years old. When she was still teaching, she organized horse camps for kids at her ranch for years during her summers off, but couldn’t help thinking about the other kids in the community who might not have those opportunities. She knew she wanted to do more with her horses to bring joy to people, but wasn’t sure exactly what the community needed until she saw a segment on Animal Planet showing people bringing mini horses through the hospital to visit sick kids.
“When I finally stopped crying, I thought about how we could do that here,” she says. And so, in 2009, she started the nonprofit on a part-time basis, and slowly grew the programs for years until it became what it is today: a multifaceted organization that touches about 4,200 people a year, including sick children in hospitals, kids with special needs, at-risk youth, and senior veterans.
As a teacher, Bell made it her mission to reach out to the kids who didn’t fit in. She focused on making each child feel included, especially those who didn’t have lots of athletic ability, and showing them that they were capable. As a result, she was beloved by students and parents alike.
Though she had to learn a few new tricks when she moved into the nonprofit world, like managing budgets, fundraising, and building websites, her main focus didn’t change too much from her time as a teacher – she is still dedicated to lifting up the children of the community, including the teenagers who volunteer with her organization.
“I’ve had some of them come back and say, ‘You believed I was worth something and that I had talents,’” she says. “That’s always been my thing. I never forget these kids.”