A Heart of Gold Drives The Equestrian Connection

MAD-equestrian-connection-inspiredLemonade stands with ice-cold drinks and fresh plates of cookies are a summertime staple.

But while many young entrepreneurs become wide-eyed at the sight of a dollar, dreaming of toys and treats, Gabriella Cooperman has another goal in mind.

Saddling up to service

She was only 5 years old when she saw her sister, Danielle, riding a horse for the first time as part of The Equestrian Connection’s hippotherapy program. Danielle has hypotonia, a disorder that affects muscle tone and development, and found horseback riding to be a wonderful way to develop her strength and sense of control.

The moment Gabriella saw how happy she was, a moment where Danielle could forget about her disability and could just enjoy being a kid, she knew that it was her responsibility to help people like her sister live the fullest lives they could.

So what’s the best way for a 5-year-old girl to accomplish this? By donating the funds raised by selling lemonade and cookies, of course.

What started as a simple lemonade stand at the corner of Lakeside Place and Sheridan Road in Highland Park, evolved into Cookies For Charity, a fundraiser that has raised more than $25,000 for The Equestrian Connection in just seven years, is run entirely by Gabriella and her classmates. She now has more than 20 corporate sponsors, including Kraft, Oberweis Dairy and the Chicago Bears.

“She truly has a heart of gold, and she is incredibly altruistic,” says Dena Cooperman, Gabriella’s mother and a resident of Highland Park.

Chomping at the bit to help others

Last year, Cookies for Charity raised more than $10,000 for Equestrian Connection, enough to sponsor a year’s worth of therapy for one rider, the full expenses of one of the horses, and to sponsor another child who was enrolled in the weeklong winter program. This year, Gabriella wants to raise $10,800—enough to pay for a year’s worth of therapy for three children.

“Her purpose is not only to help The Equestrian Connection, but to inspire other kids to do stuff and help each other,” Dena says. “For her, it’s not just about helping people with disabilities, it’s about creating opportunities for anyone that wants to help.”

In fact, Gabriella’s classmates can’t get enough of this lemonade stand. When they are asked to volunteer for 3-hour shifts, many of them end up staying the entire 12-hour day because they are having so much fun.

Diana Schnell, co-founder and Executive Director of Equestrian Connections, says that Gabriella is an inspiration to her; and she has already offered her a job leading the organization—once she has graduated from college.

“If she can make a difference, so can I,” Schnell says.

A helping hoof

Thanks to the help of the horses, therapists and volunteers at Equestrian Connections, Danielle was finally able to talk and walk on her own as of 4 years of age, despite her hyptonia. She is just one of hundreds of children that have been helped by therapy programs at The Equestrian Connection since its founding in 2001.

As she enters eighth grade this fall, Gabriella continues to work hard to help even more people live a better life—all of this, from one lemonade stand. All for the love of her sister, and others like her.

Upcoming Events

  • Cookies For Charity, August 21, 10:30 a.m to 2 p.m., Michael’s Chicago Style Red Hots, 1879 2nd St., Highland Park.
  • Cookies For Charity, August 25, 10 a.m to 6 p.m., Lakeside Place and Sheridan Road, Highland Park.

Want to help Gabriella Cooperman reach her goal of raising $10,800 for Equestrian Connection this summer? Stop by one of her stands and enjoy fresh cookies and lemonade, all prepared by her family and friends for a good cause.

  • Marty’s Barn Party, September 28, 6-10 p.m., 26125 North Riverwoods Blvd., Lake Forest ($150 before September 28; $175 at the door; $1250 for a reserved table for 10; $2,500 for VIP Tables, with seating for 10 and wine, table attendant and more).

Don’t miss this fundraiser that features an open bar, dinner, and performances from the Lambs Farm cast of “Grease” as well as Grand Funk Railroad guitarist Mark Farner. Silent auctions, live auctions, and raffles will also be held, including the chance to win a sports themed trip, tickets to concerts, or a tour of a vineyard. Shuttle service provided from the CDW parking lot located at the above address. Handicapped parking available at 600 N. Bradley Rd., in Lake Forest. Attire is business casual or Western themed.

Sign up for the event here. Contact [email protected] or call 847-615-8696 for more information.

The Make It Better Foundation is a proud media sponsor of both Cookies For Charity and Marty’s Barn Party.

Equestrian Connection by the numbers 

  • More than $75,000 in therapy scholarships provided to disabled children and adults annually.
  • More than 1,000 children from groups, schools and organizations served each year, and 300 individuals served weekly.
  • 20 horses on site, 7 of which were rescued from death for a greater purpose to help others.
  • Volunteers collectively work nearly 26,000 service hours each year.
  • 91 percent of riding fees go directly toward client care.