Milwaukee VA Medical Center
Milwaukee VA nurse wins award for volunteer service
Sheryl Kress-Griffin gave up on owning horses after she saw one trample an 18-month-old girl about 15 years ago.
â€śItâ€™s something Iâ€™m never going to forget that was just absolutely horrible,â€ť she said.
She knew the girl personally and vividly recalls her bouncing like a rag doll beneath the legs of the horse, and the blue color of the girlâ€™s skin as she laid motionless after the ordeal.
The girl sustained several minor cuts and bruises, and a punctured lung, but no permanent physical damage. However, the event was so traumatic that Kress-Griffin couldnâ€™t stand to have horses around her children.
Kress-Griffin, 56, a third-shift telemetry nurse at the Milwaukee VA Medical Center, resolved never to buy a horse again. She relented seven years later when one of her daughters, Kaelyn, fell in love with the picture of a brown-and-white miniature horse named Blaze in 2005.
Fast forward to 2013, her stable has grown to 23 horses, including 14 minis and 5 full-sized horses â€“ many of them donated to support her volunteer work with disabled children and adults.
That volunteer work has earned Kress-Griffin some recognition. She was one of two Milwaukee VA Medical Center employees to receive the Drum Major Volunteer of the Year award.
At first, Kress-Griffin didnâ€™t think it was a big dealÂ
â€śI was dead tired the day of the ceremony,â€ť she said. â€śI almost didnâ€™t go.â€ť
The Drum Major awards recognize individuals who perform extraordinary everyday acts of service with reliability and commitment, according to the organizationâ€™s website.
Her nonprofit organization, Touching Smiles Equine Therapy Inc., is dedicated to assisting in the therapeutic treatment of autistic and special needs children. It was created, in 2005, after Kress-Griffin spoke to the breeder from whom Blaze was adopted.
He told her he frequently took one of his minis around to local nursing homes for free visits.
â€śI could tell he was really excited about it,â€ť Kress-Griffin said. â€śAnd I also really wanted to help people.â€ť
Touching Smiles started small with only a few disabled children from one well-known Wisconsin family. News spread, through word-of-mouth, and soon Kress-Griffin was taking on children from other families and from the special education programs of her kidsâ€™ elementary and high school.
Her organization continued to expand, and currently works in conjunction with prominent philanthropic ventures like the Milwaukee Center for Independence and a local branch of the Variety Childrenâ€™s Charity. She hopes one day to expand further and offer a Horses for Heroes program to help veterans.
Touching Smiles also recruits individuals from companies, like Northwestern Mutual, that encourage their employees to participate in volunteer work.
Every expense is out-of-pocket for Kress-Griffin so Touching Smiles, like any other charity, relies on donations.
â€śIâ€™m hoping that those who can will donate to help,â€ť she said.
Touching Smiles is open to any person, young or old, with a physical, mental or emotional challenge. The sessions take place at Aledos Riverside Ranch, near Random Lake in Sheboygan County, or at Kress-Griffinâ€™s private residence in Cascade, WI.
The visits are free of charge and allow the participants to â€“ with assistance â€“ groom, play and run with the minis.
â€śSome parents and chaperones have told us that their kids donâ€™t talk or smile, but then, during a visit, theyâ€™re just smiling the whole time,â€ť she said. â€śItâ€™s very rewarding because itâ€™s a place where autistic and special needs people feel welcomed; no one judges or stares at them.â€ť