We had the good fortune of connecting with Donna Stedman and we’ve shared our conversation below.
Hi Donna, how do you think about risk?
Risk is always going to be a big part of our lives, if we do anything of importance ever. Personally, I look back at my life’s decisions and realize that in most of the smaller choices I have made, I had a tendency to take the path of least resistance.
Mixed into that scenario were a smattering of courageous choices that were hard, working against peer pressure, but I knew were the right thing to do. I was born into a family where I was taught to be a people pleaser. My dad was a busy dentist and oral surgeon in a small town in Indiana. His hobby was farming, as well as building commercial projects. My mom’s job was to raise their brood of seven kids, keep the home running smoothly, build and maintain the home gardens and community relationships, all on a tight budget.
My dad was overwhelmed by our big family, especially while we were young. He left to work at his dental practice at 5:00 a.m. and didn’t come home until 7:00 p.m. during the week, was in surgery all day Saturday’s, and spent Sunday’s working on the farm. I think life was much more manageable for him away from this huge group of children that he was clueless about how to deal with. We all idolized our dad, but never got to spend much time with him, including my mom. So she made sure that the house was cleaned up, dinner was done, and we were in bed by the time he got home, so that he could relax and spend some quiet time with her in the evenings. He didn’t really know how to relate to us until we got into our teen years.
We all learned excellent work ethics coming from a big family and the farm, pitching in to help with everything, whether we liked it or not. But our example of how to please folks came from watching their relationship of sacrifice to care for those you love and serve.
For many years, well into adulthood, I felt that I had to do basically what others expected of me to make them happy, no matter the price to my own self-esteem. Probably the only real exception to that in my younger years was the courage it took to keep my virginity and not try any drugs during my teens. Growing up in the 1970’s, those were hard choices, with so much peer pressure.
My college years were spent following the path of least resistance most of the time. I went to nursing school two years, getting kicked out twice. When I look back at that, I know I was not taking it seriously enough. Like every report card I had ever had growing up, teachers said, “She is not working up to her potential”. I had no idea what I loved or could be good at, so pretty much just slid through. My only real passion was horses, but how could that be my future? I ended up getting a degree in Respiratory Therapy, and worked in that profession while finishing another degree in Business Management.
It took me six years to get a bachelor’s degree, working full time for the last four years to pay for it, while mostly living on my own. I had given up my horses when I went to college, and the main passion of my life during these years was disco dancing and boys, with no real dreams other than to get out of the cold of Indiana. Probably the biggest risk I took in my young years was moving to Ft. Lauderdale, FL, in my early twenties. Florida was the only place I had visited during spring and Christmas breaks, so I knew the weather was wonderful and warm.
Shortly after I finally graduated with my Respiratory Therapy degree, I packed all my belongings into my small car and headed south with $150 in my pocket, not knowing anyone, not having a place to live or a job. Gas was $.33 per gal at that time, just to give you some perspective. By then, I guess I had taken enough smaller risks to know that I would figure out whatever I needed to know, as I needed to know it. And by then, I already had a pretty huge faith that God would guide me and protect me as needed. I hated to leave my family and friends, but I just knew I could not live in the cold, dry weather a minute longer. Staying in a hooker hotel on the strip for $75 that first week, I got a job the first day at Broward General Hospital, and was off and running. I was living off hospital food and slices of cheap pizza in my room, too scared to leave in the evenings. Knowing I was not going to get my first paycheck for another week when my time ran out at that hotel, I answered an ad for a roommate by a guy who was leaving for six months and needed someone to take care of his parrot. I lived there until he got back, then I lived in a tiny cinder-block pool house at a Buddhist Colony, paying $250/mo, living with no AC, a mattress on the floor, and a lot of cockroach friends. I was having a ball, working as many double shifts as I could to make money, getting off at 11:00 p.m., going for walks by myself or with a boyfriend after my shift, swimming in the ocean at night by myself . . . all probably a few more risks than was smart, but I just did it anyways. Youth!
After about six months I made the decision that I wanted to finish my BS degree, but could not find a college that would take my credits, so went back home. I had about 100 hours with Indiana University and Purdue University, so thought I could finish that up quickly, in a semester. But it turned out I needed 52 credit hours. I made up my mind that I was giving myself one year to finish that up, so I lived at home, worked full-time at a hospital in Ft. Wayne, IN, working Mon-Wed-Fri-Sat-Sun, and took 25 and 28 hours of classes, from 7 a.m to 10 p.m. Tues and Thur for two semesters.
It’s surprising what you can do when you really put your mind to it. I didn’t even stay for the graduation, but headed back to Florida, back to a job at Broward General Hospital, again with just a few hundred dollars and nowhere to live. While staying on an old friend from works couch, I found a room in a house, from a newspaper ad, along the waterway, that the owner would let me move into, knowing I would be getting a paycheck soon. Within a couple weeks, several other girls moved into the other rooms, and all of a sudden, I had a family. It was a scary but fun time in my life.
After several months, when the homeowner started acting too nuts, we moved into an apartment. I ended up meeting my husband several months later. He was 30 years older than me, and had just lost a son to suicide at the age of 25, after dealing with schizophrenia for years. His dream was to marry and have more kids, and I guess I was in the right place at the right time when we met. He was retired after having owned businesses, being a salesman, around the world. Without a doubt, he was the most outgoing, confident, successful, intelligent, persuasive man I had ever met, and at the time, I did not know enough about life to recognize a master manipulator. He set his sights on me, and being the people pleaser I was, I did not know how to let my no mean no yet, so I ended up marrying him. That was 35 years ago, three kids later, and we still have not killed each other. Being very average in everything I ever did prior to that time, I found my real calling when they put my first son in my arms.
As I look back at my life, being a mom has been the thing I am really good at, as well as running a home. I ended up working as a sales rep for my husband’s business for 20 years [he started it up again a few years after we met]. I was a horrible salesman, unable emotionally to push through a deal, but I ended up being pretty successful simply because I learned the industry. I took the time with my customers to educate them about our product, which my husband had invented in the late 1950’s, as well as our competitors’ products, and took the time to get to know my customers personally. They ended up investing in me and my passion for the product, I think, so I never had to try to force a sale. Sales is not the business to be in if you are a people pleaser. The constant rejection was very painful.
And being an introvert, spending a lot of time talking and smoozing was uncomfortable and exhausting. But this gave us a way to grow the company, and gave me the opportunity to work from home. I could contribute, grow as a person, and still be a full-time mom. Teaching our kids about risks was an important part of my job.
For instance, several times we were at McDonalds, with our two older kids about 6 and 8 years old. My husband would ask them take their mostly empty french-fry container back up to the counter to tell them that their fries were not hot enough, asking for a refill. I know this sounds fairly unethical, but for us it was a lesson in risk. They could have gotten a rejection and so were terrified, but it turned out they were successful, and it taught them at an early age that you can’t get anything without asking for it, no matter how terrifying. Our youngest son was allowed to ride his bike with a couple friends to school starting at about age 12, even though it was a few miles through woods and neighborhoods.
As a world, we were starting to be afraid to let our kids out of our site, but I did not want to instill that fear in my kids, so I just held my breath as a mama, and let them go. All our kids went on to work at an early age in high school, in service industries, get out of their comfort zone, and are successful, happy adults today with great work ethics. It was not until my early 50’s, when I went through one of the roughest times of my life, that I finally learned how to instill healthy boundaries. It involved my husband and my daughter, and caused my mama lioness to come out.
I’m a firm believer that everyone who comes into your life is there to be a part of your growth, and you a part of theirs. For me, I needed to be born into a family that would teach me to please others, I needed to marry a strong personality who thought his opinion was fact, and I needed to have a daughter who was strong enough to stand up to her dad when she disagreed with him, being my teacher. When his need to control and be right almost destroyed her, that is what it took to give me the courage to stand up to him as well.
Fortunately, what could have destroyed us, made us stronger as he changed to keep his family. And I grew in strength from having taken a hard-for-me risk, not backing away, finally learning to let my NO mean NO. I know for a fact that I would not have been ready for, and eventually given, the opportunity to build this sanctuary unless I had chosen courage enough times, taken enough risks. I have always encouraged my kids to be willing to take risks, knowing that a big, scary-sometimes, risk-taking life was better than a safe boring long life. Life, in my eyes, is not about quantity as much as quality. Of course, believing that everything happens for our eventual spiritual growth, and believing that we are guided and protected along the way if we allow it, helps. I hope that I can instill this understanding in others, and that is a big part of what my purpose here at Henry’s Home is . . . using my very average life to show others that they are brave enough, good enough, have everything it takes to live a meaningful life if they are willing to do the work, take the human footsteps.
Alright, so for those in our community who might not be familiar with your business, can you tell us more?
There were definitely many days of feeding horses in the pouring, freezing rain, walking around pastures of boot-sucking mud for months on end, keeping all of my feeding and tack supplies in a 8’x10’shed, walking horses that had a belly ache all night when I couldn’t afford an emergency vet call, and trying to keep hydrated when it was over 100 degrees, day after day, with no relief. That’s how it was for a number of years at the beginning. But because of my conversation, knowing that it was all working towards a purpose that was much bigger than me, I kept on persevering when I often felt so alone. I can’t imagine that anyone who has been a success at their dreams didn’t go through many hard years before they got their ‘overnight’ success.
I know it’s easy to give up on what you think is your purpose, when the truth is it may not be your purpose, but simply one step along your path. I’ve been through it a few times before I got these first two horses, with jobs I didn’t get or dreams I now realize were just short-term or not meant to be. How can you tell? I know I am uniquely blessed because I know, beyond any doubt, what I am working towards. And I know that is a huge blessing when most must be filled with doubts about the path they were walking. If I did not believe the words that were spoken to me about His taking care of the land, money and people, I would live in scared to death land much more than I do.
Most of the time I cannot see how I am going to keep feeding these horses, as the money dwindles. Fortunately, I don’t spend too much time in that land, as I remind myself that He has kept us alive over these almost nine years, even if not in a way that I can take my eyes of His promise for more than a few minutes. I mentioned to one of my volunteers recently how absolutely scared I am about almost every project or program I say yes to, having no idea how to do it. But I have learned to jump in anyways, knowing I will be led or He will bring just the right person to handle it. Knowing that if it is not meant to be, it will be stopped. But that does not take away my humanity, my survival instinct for this family of volunteers and animals, who depend on me to keep on keeping on. I am continually reminding myself of who is in charge of this show. Thank God it’s not me, or I could not sleep at night. And quite a show it is turning out to be. Our place and programs are expanding so fast, even if I often feel frustrated with how slow they seem, when I want them done today.
As I look back at our progress and growth, I am often reminded of how perfect His timing is. When I thought I was ready, I can see now how much I still needed to prepare. For instance, taking advice from a friend I respected in the field, we were told that to successfully treat PTSD with veterans, we needed to offer Equine Assisted Growth and Learning Association [EAGALA] psychotherapy sessions, using a mental health professional as part of our team. So, a couple of us volunteers got certified as EAGALA equine specialist so that we could put together teams to offer this service. But after two years of offering these sessions to our local veterans, doing everything we could think of to get them to Henry’s Home to try this therapy, we had a very limited success. It was very frustrating.
So finally, we started to ask the veterans what they really wanted out of our equine program. Across the board the answer was, “We want more time with the horses, including learning to train and ride them, we want less talking about our problems, and we want to be able to work at the ranch”. They wanted to feel needed instead of needy, have a purpose again in their lives, a way to serve. Hmmm, how can we do that as it’s never been done, that we know of, other than a weekly hour equine handling or riding lesson, a month of cattle drives and then go home, a bit more scheduled time with a horse? Being an all-volunteer horse sanctuary, finally I started to invite veterans to simply join our volunteer team. They could come spend as much time with the horses as they wanted, work with peers as well as civilians on projects on the property if they enjoyed that, and get on our schedule for professional care, training and riding lessons, at no cost to them or their families. And when we felt they were ready, join us on trail rides if they wanted to. After just a few months of offering this program, which I called our Horses & Heroes Equine Everything Program, I changed the name to Horses & Heroes Equine Learning Program. Veterans and first responders love acronyms. We knew the horses were the very best therapist and teachers, and they do their work very organically, without pressure or labels of any kind.
Our HHELP program started attracting veterans, as we asked them to come help us out, exercising the horses and working at the ranch. We are so grateful we tried the psychotherapy prior to trying this approach to helping veterans and others deal with trauma. If we would not have, we would have always wondered if what we were doing was the best we could offer. Now we know it is. Over this last year and a half several things have happened. The door at our property with Johnson Development started to close as construction of their community got closer and closer to our land. At the same time, we had more and more veterans, with a scattering of first responders, join our volunteer team. Our plan to say less and let the horses do more was working, letting the veterans talk about what they wanted working side-by-side with others facing similar issues with no expectation or pressure.
Finally, towards the end of 2019 it was obvious we needed to vacate our sanctuary property. As is His way, one of our volunteers had purchased a 21-acre horse farm about five minutes from where we were, ten years ago, as an investment. They offered to donate it to us if we took over their small mortgage. It had been totally neglected for ten years, and needed a massive tear-down and rebuild, but the bones were solid. And it was on land that never flooded, had great abundant wells, was on a quiet dead-end street and had the main buildings we needed for the horses ready to move to. This appears to be the final property to build out our retreat center. Since we moved the horses over on January 4, 2020, we have spent six months in demolition, and are just starting to build out our permanent structures. There is more to do than we feel capable of, and yet He is bringing us the folks to do it, as we continue to build relationships in our community.
And while Covid was stressing our community in so many ways, it was causing those who were stressed and staying isolated to come join our volunteer team. Good old-fashioned exercise, working with the land and animals, out in nature, in a very simple honest nothing-fancy environment, being thoughtful of each other in regards to the virus, was just what folks needed at this time. Our veterans [and their family] program continues to grow. Other veteran-service organizations are seeking to partner with us. Cutting and fitting as we go, we are figuring out our new land, enjoying the creativity of ideas our volunteers are coming up with to expand our programs [for instance, equine yoga], and finding great new areas along the San Jacinto River to trail ride.
I think the things that I am most proud of are our people. We have folks from every imaginable walk of life putting on their blue jeans and boots and getting filthy with us, having a blast, giving back. Learning so much about themselves, by way of our rescued horses. Folks come when they want, stay as long as they want, and after training with us, do what they want. The feeling is wide open here for participation and teamwork. Everyone’s ideas are considered. Folks that come to do their community service stay, just cause they love it here.
It’s truly of family. Some of the lessons I have learned along the way with this business are:
– take the human footsteps to the very best of your ability, and then get out of His way as He uses your efforts in whatever way is for your best growth,
– there are no coincidences . . . everything is part of a bigger picture which we can’t see, but need to have faith in,
– everything you go through, good and bad, is a part of your growth, so embrace it, accept it, be grateful for it,
– when you are not good at something, delegate those things to someone who is better than you . . . don’t be afraid to let go and let them be in charge of it,
– be willing to let go of everything you no longer use regularly . . . having less stuff means less stress, including the need to be right,
– allow others to help, especially if you are used to taking care of everyone . . . we all need to feel needed and appreciated,
– don’t be afraid of making a mistake, and allow others that same space for growth, and
– when you have no control over the big things, focus on what you love doing today.
Any places to eat or things to do that you can share with our readers? If they have a friend visiting town, what are some spots they could take them to?
We have lived here in The Woodlands since 1989, and I have had the sanctuary here in Conroe since 2016. So I’ve gotten to watch the growth of these communities over the years. But I have to admit, with the fast growth of this sanctuary, I have been putting almost all my time into staying here at Henry’s Home, not interacting much with anyone or anything outside what is good for our growth. But if I had a friend coming to stay for a week, there is so much to do in our communities, and a lot more than that in the greater Houston area. Some of my favorite places are: Houston; Zoo, the Space Center/NASA, Theater District, so many great restaurants and festivals, sports teams, Galveston. The Woodlands: I know things are pretty much on hold now with this pandemic, but normally they have some type of festival or outdoor music event going on every weekend. We have so many incredible restaurants, and some of my favorites are the Pappas [Pappadeux and Pappacitos] restaurants, Brios and Cheesecake Factory in The Woodlands Mall area, Los Cucos is our favorite Mexican restaurant, Chef Chan is our favorite take-out Chinese, and we love the pizza at Russo’s New York Pizzaria. Of course this being Texas, we have a bunch of great steak houses, and even some great places to get vegetarian and vegan dishes. Market Street is upscale shops of every type close to the mall for shopping, and we have great grocery stores, especially the HEB in Market Street. We have the Cynthia Woods Mitchell Pavilion which hosts all kinds of popular music acts, as well as symphony concerts and other performers, several days a week in a great outdoor setting. There are walk paths throughout the community and a lot of folks hike and bike on those. Our kids love the indoor parachuting, and golf courses. There are incredible resorts and country clubs with a lot of activities always going on for members. We have a number of professional-built golf courses as we here in Texas take our golf and tennis very seriously. The community is broken down into villages, and each village has a number of parks with tennis and pools. We like to kayak on the waterways, and go ice skating in the rink at the pavilion, year round. This community keeps winning Best Master Planned Community in the US, or close to the top every year. The Chamber of Commerce is very active with big activities regularly for the community. Conroe: This is the fastest growing city in the US, and it has much more of a small town feeling, with historic small theaters, quaint restaurants, outdoor events, and again, a lot of activities put on by the Conroe Chamber. We also have a lot of options for fun days spent on Lake Conroe, a huge man-made lake, with boating, fishing, and just hanging out on a hot day. But personally, I think anyone who would come to visit me for a week would want to spend most of their time at our sanctuary, helping with horse chores and enjoying some good hard physical workouts in nature. Just sayin . . .
Who else deserves some credit and recognition?
Wow, this is a tough question. There are so many who have shaped my life, inspired my story, mentored and taught me a belief system which has sustained me, forgiven me my mistakes. Obviously, I learned my work ethic, responsibility, integrity, loyalty and kindness from my parents, vulnerability and thoughtfulness from my siblings, strength, boundaries, and communication skills from my husband, and finally creativity, curiosity, and not to take myself too seriously or be afraid of making a mistake from my kids. I’ve lived here in The Woodlands since 1989, making a lot of deep life-long friendships, all of whom have shaped me, especially the older women in my life who mentored me through my early mothering and wife years. My business started twenty-five years ago with a conversation with [what I think was] God. I’d been brought up Catholic, married a man who was a Christian Scientist, and went on to be a non-denominational Christian for years. At the age of 35, while I was just completing an intense BSF [Bible Study Fellowship] seven-year course, while at a ladies retreat, I had this conversation, all in my head. That changed everything in my life. I was told that my purpose for being on this earth was to have a retreat center someday, that it would be a place people would come to heal their souls. That if I kept seeking Him, when the time was right, He would take care of all the land, money and people I would need. When I stopped arguing with this voice, about how my husband was never going to leave a golf course community and I had these small children to raise, he/she actually took me on a virtual tour of the retreat center. So, as crazy as it sounds, this conversation is probably the most life-changing one I have ever had, altering how I have looked at every day-to-day occurrence for the rest of my adult life. At that time, I thought I was ready for this retreat. But I can look back now and realize that these years of spiritual growth was absolutely necessary for me to be ready to handle all the ups and downs that would be this business. I’d always been a voracious reader and studier of what I was interested in, but after that conversation I could no longer read the fiction I had loved, no matter how educational. I started to branch out in my spiritual studies, reading everything I could get my hands on, trying to learn about what we mean by the word ‘God’. What Jesus came down here to really teach us, and what the other teachers had to say from other religions. My expanded spiritual education really started when I walked into a Blockbuster a week after that conversation, and saw a video with the name ‘Conversations With God’ . . . the story of how Neale Donald Walsch started his ministry. I went right out and bought his first three books, in which God scribed through him so many ideas which were so foreign, even sacrilegious, to me. But they opened a door in which I started to really think for myself about what I believed, instead of what everyone else had taught me. Over the next twenty years, I read all his books, as well as all the books written by so many others, including Wayne Dyer, Deepak Chopra, Marianne Williamson, Martha Beck, Byron Katie, James Redfield, Caroline Myss, Ram Dass, Barbara Marx Hubbard, Michael Bernard Beckwith, Matthew Fox, Esther & Jerry Hicks, and so many others. I studied The Course in Miracles for years. If the teaching was about love, then I felt that it was of God. If not, it was good to know others opinions, but they were not for me. I also studied how to live the best we could on this earth, this gift we have been given, including sustainability and love of the earth and all of its life, simplicity, radical happiness and radical honesty, unity, vulnerability, healthy eating, quantum physics, meditation and energy medicine. I lost a few of my good Christian friends as I started to talk about reincarnation and channeling and other strange beliefs, when they questioned what I thought about certain topics. It was painful, but I could not do anything other than tell my truth, no matter how bizarre. I became a vegetarian when I started to study how important trees are to the health of this earth and why we were chopping them down for US beef consumption. For me, these areas are all tied into my spiritual life and studies, which have been the biggest challenge and joy I have known. In 2012, I got two rescued horses. This was another huge change in my life, and I can give credit to two of my sisters for making that happen. Isn’t it funny how folks are used in your life without any idea of the importance of their involvement? Almost three years later I figured out that God was using these horses to build this retreat I had been waiting for, so I incorporated Henry’s Home into a 501c3 in late 2014. The first person I talked to about how to develop a nonprofit business was an old friend, Kathy Sanders, who had built a nonprofit to support her son’s future, as well as other adults with special needs. She had been growing her organization, with a lot of community help for a dozen years at this point. I asked if she would mentor me as I knew absolutely nothing about starting a nonprofit. The best advice she gave me was to start building relationships within our community . . . join the Chambers, other women’s groups, other civic organizations. She advised me that my future donations and volunteers would come from those relationships, and boy was she right. Early on, I was asked to speak about Henry’s Home at a Kiwanas meeting, and joined the group afterwards. I joined a couple of the Chambers of Commerce’s early on in our area. Knowing we would be serving veterans [I had a son who had graduated from West Point and was an Apache Helicopter pilot for the Army], I joined the VFW and the American Legion. I spoke at every type of meeting I was invited to, and I sat through a lot of really boring meetings, always with the goal in mind of spreading the word of the work this sanctuary does. And the many relationships I have built over these years continue to be a great source of support, both financially and emotionally. Kathy was absolutely right with her initial advice. Watching God bring together the pieces of this puzzle as he builds this place has been one of my very favorite life experiences. Johnson Development, who donated the use of the land we built out on for four years prior to this final donation was a huge player. Leadership Montgomery County’s Class of 2017 took us on as their nonprofit project for the year and got us over $120,000 of in-kind donations, helping us to grow much faster than we ever could have on our own. After five moves, we finally got the land that we will be building the retreat center on, donated to us in January of 2020 by a couple of our volunteers, Linda and John Harrington. One of our long-time supporters and volunteers, Bob Graves, died in the summer of 2019. His son Lee, made a donation from his estate big enough to cover our moving and building costs for the first year we are here. My partners in leading this organization, my ‘staff’, all volunteers like me, are putting their lives into building something that is so obviously bigger than all of us. I could never do any of this at this point, nine years later, without our Equine Director, Krista Carroll-Venezia, and our Volunteer Director, Mai Corcorran. And there are so many others, our marketing directors, veterans outreach directors and construction directors, as well as our Board of Directors and Board of Advisors, who are making this all happen. We are so very grateful to all the local corporations and organizations who are sending groups out to help us with projects every week, as well as all the other veteran-service organizations who are partnering with us to serve those who have served us. And mostly, our many veteran and first responder volunteers, as well as our civilian volunteers, that are helping us with the build-out and keeping the place running, taking good loving care of our 30 rescued horses and other farm animals.