Starling at Nocatee, an independent living community, works to enrich its residents with weekly activities, one of which being the “Starling Scholars” presentations, which brings in local professionals to share their stories with the residents.
ometimes, the Scholars can be business professionals or professors, but beginning in December of 2020, Starling at Nocatee began partnering with Pet Partners of North Florida.
Pet Partners of North Florida is a nonprofit organization that aims to improve human health and well-being through the animal-human bond. It brings together variations of animal species for pet therapy events to brighten the community. For residents at Starling, these animals have done exactly that.
On its latest visit, Pet Partners brought three dogs — Mia, Obi Wan and Lucie — and a horse named Ward.
Ward is a 21-year-old Appaloosa who lost his eyesight some years ago to a degenerative disease known as uveitis, or ERU. Ward’s handler, Maggie Hillman Hendel, accompanied him to greet residents at Starling.
Ward was a hit with all the residents, inspiring them to share their own stories of former horseback riding and farming days.
“It was a really great afternoon for everybody,” said Kristen Drought, director of engagement at Starling. “The point of the pet therapy event is to bring that joy to our residents, that familiarity.”
Ward’s biggest fan was Jerry Norton, a long-term resident at Starling and local artist, who was moved by the horse’s beauty and loved the fact that Ward has a seeing-eye donkey named Poppy as a friend.
Norton uses painting as a form of pain management, according to Drought, and is known among the other residents for his incredible pet portraits.
“He is the one person you can find in the art studio at any time of day,” said Drought. “He was just enamored by how beautiful Ward was.”
Drought said she knew Norton used to work with horses, so when Ward showed up, she ran to find him. Norton snapped some photos of Ward and got to work painting him. When he was finished, he sent the painting to Ward’s owner, Hendel.
“I am so moved by Jerry’s talent,” Hendel said in a Facebook post. “He captured not only Ward’s ‘Treat Face,’ but his soul. This is why Ward and I do what we do.”