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Volunteer program helps dreams come true for seniors

As her thoughts turned toward her final years, Thea Murphy pondered what she still wanted to accomplish in her life.

“I’ve been thinking and thinking about what I’d like to do before I die,” said the 90-year-old Napa resident.

She wanted to ride a horse.

Murphy, probably 80 pounds soaking wet, had a stroke two years ago that weakened her already frail body. As her friend Anne LeBlanc said, she has “one leg, one eye, one hip, one shoulder.”

“But she’s amazing,” LeBlanc said.

Enter Senior Make a Wish.

Akin to the children’s program of a similar name, the Napa program, run by the community group Celebrating Seniors, grants wishes to those over age 65.

Murphy’s horse-riding escapade was the first one to come to fruition, courtesy of the community volunteers, her caregivers at Senior Helpers and Giant Steps Therapeutic Equestrian Center east of Petaluma.

“It’s so exciting,” said a beaming Murphy as her caregiver, Norma Hernandez, and LeBlanc pushed her wheelchair across the sand Friday at the equestrian facility off Lakeville Highway.

Murphy was all dressed up in her adventure western gear: straw cowboy hat, denim jacket, black riding boots.

Katydid was her mount for the day, a palomino-colored Tennessee Walker, a senior herself at 23 years old. Katydid is a gentle veteran of assisting special-needs riders, more typically disabled children or traumatized adults rather than a tiny nonagenarian.

With assistance from Giant Steps program director Julie Larson and instructors Sean Willer and Jen McWherter, Murphy was hoisted astride Katydid.

“I love you. You’re so pretty and soft,” Murphy cooed to Katydid, holding the reins loosely in her right hand. “Good girl.”

Since Katydid is voice-trained, Murphy was able to command her to “walk on” with her soft voice. The pair - with the instructors supporting Murphy from the sides - completed a couple of laps, weaving through some cones and around an outside track.

“You’re a natural,” Larson encouraged.

“She’s got the smile of a jockey,” laughed LeBlanc, recording the ride on an iPad. “That’s the real smile from her heart.”

Murphy was born in Holland and grew up as World War II was ravaging Europe. As a young woman, she remembers the joy of seeing American soldiers arrive in tanks.

“We jumped on the tanks,” she said. “We danced with them. I said, ‘I want to go to that country.’?”

She found a sponsor and got a job as a nanny. She endured a lengthy ship voyage to the United States, where she made her first home in Connecticut and married Irishman Joe Murphy.

The couple moved to east Napa and bought a home on top of a hill in which Thea still lives. Joe, the manager of the Silverado Country Club pro shop, died in 2012.

The Murphys, who had no children of their own, fostered dozens of children, LeBlanc said.

Murphy, who requires in-home care now, still has family back home. She Skypes with her sister in Holland every day - and watched the TV show “Ellen” every day until her television was damaged in the Napa earthquake.

After the ride, Murphy and Katydid shared a moment, looking into each other’s eyes. Murphy couldn’t stop smiling.

“Thank you,” she said, giving a thumbs-up. “It was just great. This is just wonderful. Now I know what it feels like. This could not be better.”

You can reach Lori A. ?Carter at 762-7297 or lori.carter@pressdemocrat.com. On Twitter ?@loriacarter.

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