Staff Photo: Jason Braverman Atlanta Falcons player Jonathan Babineaux applauds Duluth High School student Nicholas Worthy after he knocked over the bowling pins during an activity at the Driving Magic Center. With Worthy is Carey Seigel, rear, and Ruth Mize, far right.
HOSCHTON -- Denise Turner had doubts.
Her daughter, Jenna, then 15 years old, was severely autistic. She was non-verbal. Turner had real concerns about sending her child, then a student at Peachtree Ridge High School, on a school trip to Driving Magic -- a Hoschton-based therapy center that works by introducing physically and developmentally disabled people to horse-drawn carriages.
Then Denise Turner visited the farm and saw a girl named Heather.
"Heather was a quadriplegic in a wheelchair, and she had a lot of problems," Turner said Tuesday, some five years later. "Her neck was twisted ... She had a feeding tube, she had a breathing tube. But for whatever reason she had feeling from her ankles to her toes."
Turner witnessed Heather driving a carriage, controlling a 2,000-pound horse, with reins wrapped around her feet. She began bawling, and her daughter has been visiting Driving Magic ever since.
"It doesn't matter what the issue is, having that sense of accomplishment is something you can't ever underestimate, and it provides them dignity as a result of it," Turner, now on Driving Magic's board of directors, said. "It gives them respect and dignity and empowerment. Those are big words."
On Tuesday, the program and its host Steadfast Farms had visitors from Duluth and Peachtree Ridge high schools.
It also had one more very big guest -- 6-foot-2, 300-pound Atlanta Falcons defensive tackle Jonathan Babineaux.
Babineaux, a native of Texas, grew up loving horses. He visited the farm and interacted with kids for several hours Tuesday, helping and watching them drive carriages around a track, down trails and around obstacles.
The eighth-year Falcon came away impressed.
"I think this is a great opportunity to interact with kids who have been through it all, surgeries, just trying to do normal things," Babineaux said. "Having this opportunity with them helps them gain confidence in what they can do on a day-to-day basis."
Driving Magic founder Jennifer Lindskoog said Babineaux contacted her about coming out to observe, help and learn a little himself.
The lineman learned how students drive the carriages -- "up" means go, "whoa" means stop, "haw" means left, "gee" means right -- and also helped with other activities.
"It pretty much was a no-brainer for me coming out here and helping these kids," Babineaux said.
There are several different programs offered by Driving Magic, which Lindskoog started in 2004. The main goal with the school groups there Tuesday, as with most, was both therapy and learning.
Lindskoog said there's something soothing about the outdoors for anyone -- especially autistic children, of which there are many -- and that feeling is only multiplied by interacting with an animal. And with several hundred acres of land and about eight miles of trails, there's plenty of room for activities beyond just steering carriages.
Students often go on "shopping" trips by making stops at elevated shelves scattered throughout the trailways, and bowling is another favorite.
"We work with the teachers, we understand what they're trying to accomplish for each individual person in their classroom and we apply those same things out here on the farm, but in a different way," Lindskoog said.
"This is a freedom that they don't get," she added. "They're in walls, they have fluorescent lights, they're being pushed around in wheelchairs. They don't get this level of freedom, they don't get this level of empowerment."