George Franklin of the Friends of Lockwood hugs Jennifer Winberg, Lockwood’s manager, on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022, after she gave an emotional speech to Rockford Park District commissioners about the importance of equine activities for kids dealing with mental health and emotional issues. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)
By Kevin Haas
Rock River Current
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ROCKFORD — The Rockford Park District wants to build an indoor equestrian center at Lockwood Park that promises to help young people emotionally heal from trauma, abuse or other mental health issues.

District officials have recognized the need for an indoor arena for decades, largely to allow for year-round horseback riding and to reduce the number of weather related cancellations. But its latest pitch expands the focus of the center to serve the needs of youth with mental health issues, developmental disabilities, trauma, domestic abuse, substance addiction, behavioral issues and other needs through equine-assisted activities.

Jay Sandine, the park district’s executive director, said during Tuesday’s board meeting that the center has the potential to “go down as one of the most important facilities in the history of this park district.”

“The community, particularly youth, has witnessed an unprecedented crisis throughout the region suffering from mental health and trauma-related needs, which elevated during the COVID-19 pandemic,” he said in a statement after the meeting. “Our children are crying for help, and this project can play a major role in the intervention needed to improve their lives and set them up for a lifetime of success.”

The center at Lockwood Park, 5201 Safford Road, would also host year-round riding lessons, camps and other events for youth and adults.

Related: Summer camp program aims to help youth affected by violence, trauma in Rockford

Raising funds

George Franklin of the Friends of Lockwood, left, and others applaud on Tuesday, Jan. 25, 2022, after Doug and Lachlan Perks announced via Zoom during a Rockford Park District board meeting that their foundation would donate $500,000 toward creating an indoor equestrian center at Lockwood Park. (Photo by Kevin Haas/Rock River Current)

The district is pursuing funding to build the arena, which is estimated to cost $4 million. On Tuesday, it got a boost from The Perks Family Foundation, which pledged $500,000. Doug and Lachlan Perks, who ran a Rockford-based gas components manufacturing business for years before selling in 2014, announced the donation during a video call at Tuesday’s meeting. The Perks said the center could provide “a new avenue to help those with mental health issues.”

“This connection to horses teaches, in a very deep, impactful way, how to listen and respond to others without speaking, how to care and feel without embarrassment, and how to achieve without bullying,” the brothers said in a statement. “Horses are simply one of the greatest human teachers in history, and we wanted to give this opportunity to all the children in the area.”

Related: Rockford Park District to borrow $6M for Riverview Ice House fixes

Lachlan Perks also said the facility has the potential to attract support on a national level.

“We can attract funding from outside the Rockford area to help Rockford,” he told board members.

The district also got a $50,000 donation from the Smith Charitable Trust. Now, it plans to ask the Winnebago County Mental Health Board for $1.5 million to help fund the creation of the center. The board is responsible for allocating funds from a half-cent tax voters approved in March 2020 to fund mental health services in the community.

If it can obtain the funding, construction of the arena could begin in fall.

“The expansion of services to serve young people year-round would provide greater access for those with trauma and mental health and substance use disorders through evidence-based equine therapy,” Dave Gomel, president and CEO of Rosecrance, said in a statement.

Related: Courts pitch remodel of Public Safety Building to improve how domestic violence cases are heard

Kevin Polky, founder of the suicide prevention organization Shatter Our Silence, said the center has the potential to help young people deal with stress and other risk factors in their life.

“You can’t control the stressers, just like we can’t control the risk factors, but we can control our responses to them,” Polky said at the board meeting. “This center is an opportunity to build in protective factors. What’s a protective factor? A protective factor is the reason why I don’t want to take my life because I now have something that I have to live for.”

Jennifer Winberg, Lockwood’s manager, gave an emotional presentation to the board Tuesday about the goals for the center. Winberg, who has a background in social services, said she recognizes the look of isolation, despair “and not knowing what tomorrow is going to look like” in youth.

“This isn’t about more horses and more riding lessons, this is about the look in all of their eyes,” she said.

She told the board working with horses helped her overcome trauma from relationship violence, substance abuse, gang involvement and “things you would never dream of that I had been through and walked through, and I got to that dark moment.”

“It was a horse that stopped and was quiet enough to hear who I was and what I needed, and I want to give that to our kids and our people in our community.”

This article is by Kevin Haas. Email him at or follow him on Twitter at @KevinMHaas.

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