Finding the Champion Within - Penn-Mar

Finding the Champion Within

Posted on August 5, 2019

By Sue Maras, Penn-Mar Parent

As parents, all you really want for your children is for them to be happy. By the time our son Stephen was nine months old, we discovered he had developmental delays. Over time he was diagnosed with high-functioning autism and an intellectual disability.  

There was no “how to” book we could source to navigate this new journey. Every parent in our situation follows a different route and experiences different outcomes. 

Looking back, it would take us almost 27 years to figure it out. Twenty-seven years for us to be able to finally say, “Our son is happy, he has found his place in this life.” 

Stephen was in an inclusive classroom for elementary school but spent less time in that environment during middle school and high school when it became too difficult for him to keep up He eventually aged out of the system at age 21, certificate in hand, options incredibly limited. 

We tried everything we could to find him companionship, stimulation, a reason to get out of bed in the morning. After several unsuccessful attempts, someone suggested we look into the Penn-Mar Human Services programs 

It wasn’t an easy transition.  Stephen started in the community program, then one-on-one support and eventually moved to the day program.   His participation in the program over time went from five days a week to only one.  

It was the Penn-Mar DSP who was providing him one-on-one support that suggested an outing to Freedom Hills Therapeutic Riding Program in Port Deposit, MD. That was in the fall of 2015 when Stephen would slowly discover a passion for horses and riding. 

In June, 2017, Stephen moved out of our home at the age of 25 to live in a Penn-Mar residence in Parkton, MD.  Stephen was ready to gowe were reluctant for him to move. But truthfully, we were all ready for the change. For almost three years prior, Stephen basically laid in bed, unmotivated to do anything.  

On his first full day at his Penn-Mar home, another resident was headed to the Day Program and Stephen agreed to go with him. After that he went every day. Suddenly he had a place he liked going to and friends he enjoyed being with. 

But he also wanted to continue riding his horse Maggie, a beloved horse that effortlessly followed Stephen’s command. 


We have made that happen by picking up Stephen at Penn-Mar every Friday night when he stays with us and then driving him to his Saturday morning riding program and back home to Penn-Mar on the same day. It’s a long journey for only a few hours of riding but has been worth every mile. 

This past May, as a Freedom Hills athlete, Stephen competed in the Annual Therapeutic Riders Division of the Devon Horse Show located at the Thorncroft Equestrian Center in Malvern, PA with over 120 people who happen to have disabilities. He participated in four classes (dressage, walk/trot, equitation, and trail) and scored the highest in the trail class.  

When a young woman ran over to us with a blue ribbon on a silver plate we tried to return the plate but she said, “No, this belongs to your son. You can imagine how proud we were of our son’s accomplishment! 

We drove home to Maryland on that perfect day only to receive a call in the car that our son not only won his division in trail but had won the Ann Joyce Cochrane Trophy which is awarded to the one rider in the show with the best score in trail.  This trophy is presented at the prestigious Devon Horse Show in Devon, PA and entitled Stephen to compete at the show with six other “Thorncroft champions” the very next day! 

Needless to say we made our way back to Devon where Stephen was presented with the trophy and competed with people who had been riding for some 25 years. He didn’t win that competition but he loved riding Maggie in the ring to receive his trophy and now wants to compete again and do more trotting.  

Stephen now refers to himself as a “champion.” He is proud, confident and motivated.    

At his home at Penn-Mar, our champion has friends and enjoys hanging out with his housemate Jimmy and helping his two retired housemates, who are both blind. Stephen would love to work, either at a horse show or at Penn-Mar, where he can be a staff member just like the staff who support him there. 


As parents, we often sit at our kitchen table and say, “How did all this happen?” So many things had to fall in place, and that included the disappointments along the way that led us to Penn-Mar, to this miracle that has us saying, “Our son is happy, he has found his place in this life.” 

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