Heart Centered Learning
Some have called her a Horse Whisperer, but Maria Mersman, founder of Heart Centered Learning in Laurens, likes to refer to herself as a Horse Listener. To some, it might not seem that different, but listening and sensing are all part of what Mersman and her horses do at Heart Centered Learning, based out of Mersman’s farm, Red Moon Ranch LLC.
Heart Centered Learning, according to Mersman, was founded because “the youth and families who really needed our services could not afford our fees in spite of our modest prices.” She said they believe everyone should invest something into services they receive.
“We have a sliding scale depending on the financial needs. If families qualify for free services, they receive it. Some children and families are sponsored through private donors,” Mersman said.
Mersman added that the majority of their private clients range in age from as young as 8-18 and their families – the children who usually come to the farm are dealing with complex traumas such as abuse, neglect, sexual assault and rape. In addition, Mersman is also trained to work with veterans who have experienced PTSD, along with grief and victims of trafficking.
“Our focus is to help the clients build trust and a sense of self regulation so they can be in a better mind state to process mental health. Our program also teaches life skills through activities with the horses, journaling, and art expression - our farm is set up for experiential learning,” she said.
By doing these things, Mersman said it allows children and their families to channel their feelings in other ways, help them understand why they are having a particular reaction and what they can do about it.
She will also assign the kids with homework, but it’s not your typical homework.
“I give them a pamphlet – these are the things you could do at home to make life easier for you. One of the things I send is called a Brain Dump. Your brain just has all these things in your head and it’s great for people with ADHD. You just write down everything you have in your head and write it down without giving it a thought. Put it down and come back to it whenever and see what that looks like,” she said. “It’s little things that they do. My purpose is for them to get in touch with nature – try to find God in all of this. Try to find a spiritual connection, also. It’s kind of opening that window so they can see what it’s like to be quiet and to have a quiet mind. The actual therapist cannot come in and work with these kids, especially the ones who have had complex trauma, they cannot sit and listen and process unless their mind is somewhere integrated with all parts of their brain. That is my goal – to have that balance and integration.”
Heart Centered Learning also offers Girl Circle, a structure that supports girls 9-18 years old. Mersman said it’s “designed to foster strengths and promote resilience through developing authentic connection with peers and adult women in their community. We incorporated the horses, farm setting and the art was based on exploring their individual character strengths.”
Mersman said it’s hard to understand what she does unless you’re actually experiencing it. She works alongside therapists, teachers, coaches, etc. to help the kids she sees.
“Behind every child that is broken, there is a family that is broken; let’s help the family, let’s not get stuck on just the kids,” she said.
One person Mersman works closely with is caseworker Joy Hansen.
“With these kids you have to think outside the box to find help for them to move past their pain and come to realize that they can have hope for their future. This is what Maria brings to them with her Equine Sessions. She teaches them to slow down their breathing, mindfulness, which helps them become more aware of the control they can have over their own lives,” Hansen said. “People become stuck when they go through severe abuse, Maria helps them have hope for their future and brings them back to a happier time. Some of my kids have no memories of happy times and the farm brings this to them which is amazing. This is another avenue to help people and we need to recognize not all traditional methods work for everyone, especially young children. The farm is a non-judgmental and accepting place, where kids and adults can grow to be the best they can be in a world where they have had no control. We need to support her - she works with my youths for free. If we want a better community for everyone we all need to be invested to get there.”