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‘Accomplishing more than the average man’

August 09, 2008|By Candice Baker

“I can remember holding Michael when I was 27 and thinking, ‘What will ever become of my baby?’” Nancy Lewis said.

Her son was born with cerebral palsy, and his doctor’s prognosis was less than positive.

“He’s 40 now, and he has accomplished more in his 40 years than many people have in their lifetime,” she said.

“He’s done it all,” Michael’s father, Derek, said.

“We just got back from Bali, where monkeys climbed all over him. He swam with dolphins in Hawaii, parasailed, snow skied — we have not allowed any moss to grow under his feet.”

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The Lewises, longtime Newport residents, attribute much of their son’s success to the J.F. Shea Therapeutic Riding Center, a horseback riding center for people with disabilities in San Juan Capistrano they helped found 30 years ago.

The center recently honored the Lewis family at a gala event with its Founders’ Award for decades of commitment.

Michael Lewis was the first rider after the program received nonprofit status in 1978.

“There was no center when he was 10,” Nancy Lewis said. “God’s plan was incredible. Just incredible.”

The Lewises heard about Fran Joswick, the program’s creator, through their physical therapist. Joswick started with one therapy horse.

“We liked her ideas and her vision,” Derek Lewis said.

He became the new foundation’s treasurer, and Nancy was the secretary.

Seven years ago, following many years of renting its 7-acre site for $1 a month, the center was granted the land by longtime sponsor the J.F. Shea Co.

Now that the land is theirs, they have begun building permanent structures, including covered arenas, a 40-horse barn and a planned education and therapy center.

Therapeutic riding offers different benefits for different people.

For Michael and the center’s clients who use wheelchairs, riding exercises muscles in areas that otherwise remain stationary.

“One of the biggest benefits of therapeutic riding is that it builds up your core muscles,” said Susan Martin, the center’s senior development manager. “A horse is the only thing in the world that mimics the three-dimensional movement of your pelvis.

“We’re not just doing pony rides here.”

The center now hosts visitors from far and wide who come to learn from the program.

Nancy Lewis credited the many donors, volunteers and staff members who have helped the center in its development.

“They have taken it to a level now where we are the example to the world of what a therapeutic riding center is all about,” she said.

In Michael Lewis’ case, he is much more limber than he would have been without having received equestrian therapy.

“It’s the only reason he is holding his head up today,” Nancy Lewis said. “The horse is the hero.”

For more information on donating to or volunteering at the center, call (949) 240-8441 or visit www.sheacenter.org.


CANDICE BAKER can be reached at (949) 494-5480 or at candice.baker@latimes.com.

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