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.
“It’s something I’m never going to forget that was just absolutely horrible,” 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 girl’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 couldn’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 – 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 didn’t think it was a big deal
“I was dead tired the day of the ceremony,” she said. “I almost didn’t go.”
The Drum Major awards recognize individuals who perform extraordinary everyday acts of service with reliability and commitment, according to the organization’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.
“I could tell he was really excited about it,” Kress-Griffin said. “And I also really wanted to help people.”
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 kids’ 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 Children’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.
“I’m hoping that those who can will donate to help,” 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-Griffin’s private residence in Cascade, WI.
The visits are free of charge and allow the participants to – with assistance – groom, play and run with the minis.
“Some parents and chaperones have told us that their kids don’t talk or smile, but then, during a visit, they’re just smiling the whole time,” she said. “It’s very rewarding because it’s a place where autistic and special needs people feel welcomed; no one judges or stares at them.”