MICHIGAN CITY – After spending four years as a volunteer at Reins of Life, Marquette Catholic High School senior Kate Zientarski hopes to raise money for a project to leave a lasting mark on the non-profit.

Reins of Life’s 46-acre campus and winding trails make for a peaceful slice of paradise, according to Zientarski, complete with trees and pastures serving as an environmental shield from nearby I-94.

It offers a little tranquility, she said, and near the entrance to the trails sits a clearing where she hopes to create her personal legacy – an art project for future students and volunteers to enjoy.

Zientarski’s began working with horses around age 4 – her family had moved from Chicago to Michigan City shortly after she was born, and she was taking riding lessons before kindergarten.

The owner of two horses (Penny and Samson), her equine passion continued through the years, and when she enrolled at Marquette, her devotion to horses, coupled with the school’s focus on community service, brought her to Reins.

Throughout her four years at Marquette, Zientarski spent hundreds of hours at the facility off CR-300N, where the mission is to improve the quality of life for children and adults with disabilities through equine-assisted therapy.

Over the past year, Marquette sent more than 70 student volunteers, who accrued more than 500 hours of service, according to Beth Cortelyou, special programs coordinator at Reins.

“The Marquette family has been very generous to Reins of Life this year,” she said. “In addition to the volunteer hours throughout the year, two students helped install insulation in our arena one weekend. Marquette also held a fundraiser for us during Catholic Schools Week, and we have some active volunteers who are current students or graduates.”

Cortelyou has been with Reins for more than three years, developing relationships with local organizations, including Marquette, Michigan City Area Schools and the La Porte Community School Corporation. She said she wants to “enable students to experience the joy of giving back.”

Not a problem for Zientarski – “a driving force behind Marquette’s involvement,” according to Cortelyou – who’s particularly proud of the bond she formed with one particular student.

“Grace has a disability that affects her legs, but she’s come such a long way since working with us at Reins,” Zientarski said. “When she first got here, she couldn’t walk. Now, she’s gained confidence and is a fantastic rider.”

Student volunteers are paired with horses that match their personality, Cortelyou said.

“Like most therapy animals, our horses pick up on your demeanor. If you’re skittish, the horse is probably going to be skittish, too,” she said.

Because of her familiarity with horses, Zientarski was paired with Chocolate, the largest horse, and like her time with Grace, she said she cherished her interactions with Chocolate.

“He’s definitely the drama king of the bunch,” she said with a smile. “Grace and I have spent many lessons laughing with each other as I lead Chocolate.”

Along with horses, she also has a second love – art, conceptual art to be precise.

“I like to create things. Everything I draw is conceptual,” she said. “I don’t like drawing characters that already exist. I have my own worlds and characters.”

After she graduates summa cum laude from Marquette on June 5, Zientarski will attend IUPUI’s Herron School of Art and Design, where she plans to pursue a bachelor’s degree in Drawing and Illustration.

It’s her dream to someday see her drawings and stories on the big screen, she said. And her combination of artistic ability and affinity for horses has created an opportunity.

Reins of Life contacted Marquette art teacher Edwin Shelton about constructing a mural in a small grassy area just north of the massive barn known as “the arena” – where the majority of Marquette volunteers work with students and horses.

Zientarski pounced on the opportunity and drew renderings for a layered exhibit that left Shelton and Cortelyou ecstatic.

“I wasn’t sure at first what exactly I wanted, but as soon as I saw Kate’s pictures, I said ‘This is it. We’ve got to make this happen’,” Cortelyou said.

The labor for the mural will be easy, Zientarski said, because drawing is a “labor of love.”

The challenge is the cost – between materials and paint, the cost is estimated at $1,500.

In addition to continuing to volunteer this summer, Zientarski will be working part-time to help offset that cost. Marquette has also raised funds, but more are needed.

“Thanks to the generosity of volunteers and donors, upgrades and renovations have been made at Reins of Life from the insulation to a new program aimed at assisting veterans,” Cortelyou said.

And it’s paid off.

“My husband (Jim) has been taking part in a one-on-one plan here for the last six weeks and it’s brought him back to life,” volunteer Diane Sennett said. “He never worked with horses before, but it’s helped so much with his memory and strength.”

The advances have created many benefits for local children; and Zientarski and Cortelyou hope the aesthetic upgrade can make a beautiful place that much more appealing.

“This project will most definitely be my legacy from Marquette and Reins of Life,” Zientarski said.

To help the mural project, contact Shelton at Edwin.Shelton@marquette-hs.org. For more information about Reins of Life and volunteer programs, visit ReinsofLife.org.

—From staff reports 

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