Four Women Who Are Making a Difference: Across the Merrimack Valley, women fill the corner offices and boardrooms in all types of professions and businesses. Here is a look at four female leaders who are making a difference in the workplace each day.
DEEDEE O’BRIEN – Executive Director, Ironstone Farm
Deedee O’Brien’s steadfast love of horses was evident at a young age.
Growing up in Lowell, there was a farm down the street from her house. As soon as she was old enough to cross the street by herself, she would often go and look at the horses in the fields. As a teen, she began helping at the farm and spending even more time there with the animals.
Shortly before graduating from high school, she arrived at the farm to find that her favorite horse, Little Abby Rose, had been sold and was being loaded into a trailer for the ride to a new home. Sobbing, she rushed to her house and told her parents the devastating news.
Her father spoke to the owners. For $400, he bought her the horse. Today, horses remain part of O’Brien’s family.
O’Brien, 66, first arrived at Andover’s Ironstone Farm in 1972. She was looking for a place to board her horse as she moved back to Lowell from college in New Hampshire to care for her ailing father. Richard Donovan, the farm’s founder, allowed her to work off the cost of boarding Little Abby Rose by helping him care for his racing horses.
She never left.
In 1976, O’Brien worked at a camp for kids with special needs. One day, she brought her charges to Ironstone. The trip was a success and word began to spread. Similar organizations inquired about visits. Soon, a free weekly program for special needs clients was established. O’Brien and Donovan gave lessons for riders without disabilities to help fund the program.
By the mid-1980s, about 100 riders were attending the program. Donovan and O’Brien started the nonprofit Challenge Unlimited to offer beneficial therapy for individuals with physical, emotional and cognitive disabilities. Today, the clients include veterans struggling with post-traumatic stress disorder or anxiety, patients battling cancer, and seniors with dementia or Alzheimer’s.
Ironstone Therapy, a nonprofit affiliate of Challenge Unlimited, was founded in 1997. Its licensed hippotherapists use horseback riding as a way to improve physical, occupational and speech issues.
Ironstone Farm has 35 horses, and an average of 400 to 450 clients visit the 19-acre farm each week.
The farm has a $1 million annual budget, 50 percent of which must come from fundraising.
With an unwavering dedication and drive, she has spent her career developing Ironstone Farm and its therapeutic programs. The campus has grown, too.
A capital campaign raised the money to renovate a building that serves as the main barn and as a location for therapy sessions. A house was purchased with the intent to grow programs and staff. There are plans to turn the original farmhouse into a veterans center and to build a new tack room. O’Brien recently returned from a trip to Israel, where she finalized the formation of an exchange program with Red Mountain Therapeutic Riding Center, a similar organization with the same mission.
Donovan died in 2015 and O’Brien is following in his legacy. He was her mentor, best friend and business partner, she says, and the farm wouldn’t exist as it does today without him. When presented with a challenge or given an idea on how to expand or improve a program, he was determined to make it happen.
“He was the ‘never say never’ person,” O’Brien says. “I got it from him. That was Dick. That was his spirit.”
O’Brien’s life at Ironstone Farm has included “a lot of goose bump moments” — profound, defining times that have highlighted the organization’s impact on the lives of its clients and their families, O’Brien says. There was an artist who attended a one-day retreat for cancer patients. The visit had such an impact on her that she left some of her paintings to the farm when she died. And then there was the senior with memory impairment who participated in the “touch therapy” program with the horses. The man was nonverbal, so he never spoke to anyone. Yet, during his trips to the farm, he talked to the horses. Soon his son was meeting him each week and the two were able to engage in conversations again. The son called O’Brien to thank the staff for giving back his father.
Check back in a couple days for the final part of this series, with Anita Worden, Co-CEO, Yaskawa-Solectria Solar.