By Donna Swicegood, MEDIA GENERAL NEWS SERVICE
She has combined her love of animals and her passion for helping people deal with a variety of issues into a retreat called Avalon — A Farm Retreat Center in western Iredell County.
Avalon has several programs, including Healing with Horses, stress management and wellness, breathwork and creativity-art therapy.
Avalon is a longtime dream for Clarke, who started as a paralegal but quickly grew bored with sitting in an office.
“I felt like I was in a cage,” she said.
So, using her psychology degree from Lenoir-Rhyne College (now University), she embarked on a passion rather than a career.
She went to Florida and studied a wellness program.
From there, she started a business in Charlotte called Life Management, in which she worked with individuals, corporations and others on stress management and other issues.
It grew into a healthy business, with 350 clients and eight employees, but, Clarke said, she was still looking for her passion.
Her dream was always a place such as Avalon.
A client, Dale Halton, whose grandparents founded Pepsi in 1905, helped make her dream come true.
She said that Halton posed one question: What would it take?
Clarke told her about 50 acres, and, she said, Halton told her to go find it.
Clarke found what she was looking for on Lackey Farm Road near the Iredell-Alexander line, and after 10 years of dreaming, Avalon is now a reality.
A plaque honoring Halton’s contribution is nailed to an oak tree near the barn.
Halton said she supported the project because she believes in its mission.
“The essence of Avalon is such a great feeling. It allows for commitment, healing, compassion and unconditional love,” she said.
The 50-acre property has a big barn, a welcome center with bedrooms for overnight stays, an education center and of course, animals.
Horses, goats, pigs, ducks, chickens, cats and dogs all share the property and are part of the therapy programs that Clarke offers at Avalon.
She particularly believes that the horses teach children and adults unconditional love and caring.
Clarke said she has long believed in the healing powers of horses, but she knew that she was on to something many years ago when a girl — suffering debilitating injuries from a car wreck — made a complete turnaround because of a horse.
The girl, who had problems with walking and cognitive skills, was able to saddle a horse and knew immediately how to handle the reins.
After a short ride, the girl got off the horse, and began crying. “My horse died five days before my accident,” she told Clarke.
Since her work with the horses, the girl is now living on her own, out of a group home, and is working.
“I started to see nuances happening between people and the horses,” she said. “Adults, children can pour out their heart and soul to a horse.”
Two local agencies that deal with juveniles in the justice system are working with Avalon.
Amberle Gowan of Project Challenge in Iredell County said that a group of kids in the program is going to Avalon to work on the farm and spend time with the horses.
“It has been great,” she said.
Project Challenge is a juvenile community and restitution service.
Kids from the Alexander County Project Challenge also are working with Avalon.
Later this month, children from both the Iredell and Alexander area, as well as a group of ROTC students from Burke County, will arrive at the farm for a volunteer work day.
Clarke said that although it may appear that the kids are spending time with animals, they are actually working and learning.
For example, she said, the children will be helping install fencing, during which their math skills and problem-solving ability will be necessary.
During the times when no one is at the farm, Clarke said, there’s lot to be done, and she gets it done with the help of Billy Keaton.
Keaton and Clarke are currently nursing one of the horses, Priscilla, back to health from some leg problems.
Priscilla, 20, the lead horse at the farm, was raised by Clarke.
She said that her own special connection to Priscilla is mirrored in the people who come to the farm looking to heal.
“Horses are intuitive and highly intelligent creatures,” she said.
Clarke said she believes that she has now found her passion and wants to share her gifts with others. Avalon is a nonprofit organization, so she tries to offer as many free programs as she can to those who cannot afford it.
“I don’t know why I do it,” she said. “I love it. I am driven by it.”
■ Donna Swicegood is a reporter for the Statesville Record & Landmark.
■ For more information about Avalon, visit www.healingwithhorses.com or call 704-585-6377.