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Birmingham is home to many wonderful nonprofit organizations, and today we’d like to introduce you to the FACE behind The Red Barn, executive director Joy O’Neal.

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Where did you grow up?

I’ve lived all my life around Birmingham, but went to a different school almost every year.  So, pick a part of Birmingham and I probably lived there!

Tell us about The Red Barn and the services provided there.

We work with children and adults who have disabilities or special circumstances and provide the opportunity for them to work with and learn from horses. Our students include those with autism, cerebral palsy, genetic disorders, depression, eating disorders, Down syndrome, RAD (reactive attachment disorder), as well as individuals who may be disadvantaged or at-risk. Many of our students are in foster care, have been internationally adopted as older children, or have another circumstance that would keep them from thriving in a traditional riding lesson program.

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We see about 130 individuals each week at the barn to participate in our programs: Saddle Up, Spirit of Hope, Horse Play, Take the Reins, and Rescue our Children (takes place in Pell City in collaboration with The Mustard Seed). A typical day could include everything from teaching a 3 year old with Down’s, an elementary age child with autism, a junior high age child recently internationally adopted, a teenager with a terminally ill parent, an adult veteran with PTSD, and a senior citizen with Alzheimer’s.

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The horses in our programs have interesting stories that often mirror the lives of our students. For example, we have a lot of students who were adopted because their biological parents couldn’t care for them. Several of the horses in our programs were adopted by us because their “parents” (former owners) couldn’t properly provide for them due to economic setbacks in their lives. Considering the horse’s circumstance often helps the child understand their own.

We also offer numerous training and certification clinics to help train others to offer similar programs. So far this year, we’ve had people from literally across the United States come to our clinics and certifications. So, we provide direct services ourselves, as well as making it possible for even more children across the country to work with and learn from horses.

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The story of how The Red Barn came to be is such beautiful one. Can you tell it for us?

My mentor was Anita Cowart, whose daughter Love was killed in a car accident in the mid-sixties. On her way home from the hospital Mrs. Cowart stopped at her friends’ the Jernigan’s house to collect herself before going home to tell her sons that their sister had died. As she prayed, she remembered the verse from Mark that said whatever is given up for God’s glory is returned one hundred fold. She felt a peace in her heart and knew that God would restore to her not just one hundred, but thousands of “daughters.” And, sure enough, all of Love’s friends and their friends and their friends kept coming to her house to learn about horses. Mrs. Cowart had a knack for using our own personal relationships with horses as a way to mirror our relationships with God. So, as she taught about horses, she was really sharing faith, hope, and love.

Fast forward many years later in 1998 when my own children wanted to take horseback riding lessons. I met Mrs. Cowart and over time she became my best friend, even though generations separated us in our ages. In 1999 when my husband and I found some property that we wanted to purchase, we showed it to Mrs. Cowart and had no idea that it was the exact same property that had once been owned by the Jernigans where Mrs. Cowart stopped to pray that night. When Mrs. Cowart told us of the connection we bought it on the spot!

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By 2006 my children didn’t need me as involved in their lives on a daily basis (in other words, they all got driver’s licenses), so some friends and I started Spirit of Hope in Wilsonville and used The Red Barn as a secondary location as needed. I went back to school at UAB and got my master’s in nonprofit administration and we used the model of Crystal Peaks Youth Ranch as our agency inspiration. But, for me, the heart of it has always been to continue on Mrs. Cowart’s legacy. In 2012 we decided to just move all of the programs to the one location in Leeds and kept the name The Red Barn because it described the location rather than just one program that we offered.

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How can people get involved and help The Red Barn? What are your biggest challenges?

To get involved at The Red Barn, email [email protected]. We love volunteers and use them to assist with our programs, care for the horses, events, property and facility maintenance, and all sorts of projects. No horse experience is necessary, but we do require background checks and attendance at some training classes.

Our biggest challenge is balancing the demand for our services with our resources to provide them. That’s a nice way to say we always need donations! Our facility would physically allow us to see more children each week, but our capacity is limited by the funds available for horse care and instructor salaries. If you’re interested in investing in our programs, we’d love to have you out to the barn to show you first hand all the wonderful things that happen there each day.

Please describe the person in your life who had the most influence on your career.

I’ve already described Mrs. Cowart, but I’d also say it was the librarians at the many schools I attended. It was rough always being the new kid at school, so I found solace in the library. The librarians were great to let me spend my free time helping shelve books and read, and just hanging out in the library with them cultivated a love of learning that’s still with me today. Google wasn’t around then so we had to actually look for our own answers! They taught me how to research and synthesize information in an orderly way, which I think is the most important skill set any of us can use in our careers.

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What’s the best piece of advice you’ve ever been given?

Always keep in mind that God has a plan for your life, even the rotten and unhappy times. The older I get, the more I realize that it was what I learned during some of my most painful experiences that has made me a better person and helped me bring comfort to others. I love it when I can look back on those painful situations and see how it fits into the bigger picture.

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What advice would you give to others?

I’d share the quote shown in the photo above! But, if it has to be something different, I’d say that when you are prepared, you can be spontaneous. In other words, making a plan can give you a framework for spontaneity when things don’t go the way you planned.

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What is your favorite thing to do to relax?

Hang out with my huge extended family. I have the best family in the whole world!

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Favorite thing to do on a Saturday night?

Get everything caught up that’s on my desk. Yes, I’m that boring.

Favorite local restaurant?

Ollie Irene.

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What are you listening to these days?

Festival Expressions and Trouble the Waters. They are both great and going to be famous one day!

What books are you currently reading?

Star Trek and Philosophy. It discusses how the episodes of Star Trek often mirror philosophical issues that have been around for thousands of years. Seriously. Kirk, Picard, and Aristotle all wondered the same things about humanity.

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Do you have any personality quirks or irrational fears?

I love Star Trek, and always have – even before it became popular recently. And, ironically on the other end of the spectrum, I love Little House on the Prairie. Not the TV series, but the books. I also am very interested in the ideas of industrial efficiency that Frank Gilbreth pioneered. And, a tiny bit obsessed with the Blue Angels because I love their visual representation of teamwork. I guess any one of those wouldn’t be too quirky, but the combination probably is.

If your house were on fire, what’s the one non-living thing you would grab?

Actually, that recently happened to me when our house caught on fire in July. I knew the kids were already out of the house and my cell phone was in my pocket, so as I ran out I grabbed a baseball cap my cousin recently had given me that was autographed by all the Blue Angels.

Name three things you can’t live without excluding friends, family and God.

Cell phone, computer, Day Timer planner.

Thanks for sharing, Joy! To learn more about The Red Barn, visit their website at

And thanks to Beth Hontzas for today’s beautiful photos. Learn more about Beth at

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