Several volunteers are speaking out in support of the Danada Equestrian Center in Wheaton after other volunteers alleged mistreatment of some horses and other management problems at the DuPage Forest Preserve District facility.
The initial complaints were lodged in a November letter signed by 34 current and former volunteers, which sparked an investigation by the forest preserve district. Officials will begin discussing the findings during a board of commissioners meeting Tuesday.
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A handful of volunteers wrote impassioned letters to the district last week, all voicing support for Danada and how the horses are treated.
"I cannot begin to express my anger and horror that an internal dispute over a change in management can become a mischaracterization of abuse," volunteer Margaret Clifford of Wheaton said.
In a letter to the district that was cosigned by five fellow volunteers, Clifford said, "nothing could be further from the truth" regarding accusations of horse neglect, poor management and volunteer favoritism. Some of those women also wrote individual letters of support, as did a handful of other volunteers and a former staff member.
Clifford defended a staff member who some of her colleagues accused of abusing a draft horse in anger with a hammer and rasp, saying volunteers lack professional expertise to judge what is appropriate handling. District officials also said they found this story "false or exaggerated" and the employee is still with the district.
"Putting in four hours a week does not qualify us as experts," she said. "Even after eight years volunteering, I would not call myself an expert.
"This same staff stayed up all night to save the life of a seriously ill horse and, because of their attention and quick response, this horse is still alive," Clifford added. "But that didn't get mentioned."
Several of the women backing Danada said they never were asked to sign or decline the initial letter outlining complaints against the equestrian center.
"This took most of us by surprise," Clifford said.
The complaint letter was sent to all forest preserve commissioners in mid-November and contained a nearly five-page attachment outlining specific concerns with Danada management since 2010, including claims the medical needs of six horses were neglected.
District officials said that was the first such complaint in Danada's nearly 30-year history and they took it seriously enough to launch an internal investigation.
The letter also expressed concerns with the treatment of a handful of longtime volunteers, accusing the district of not valuing people who served for a decade or more. In one instance, the letter says a longtime volunteer who needed a medical leave from her duties would have to completely retrain at Danada after a brief absence. Another example accuses the district of not showing proper thanks to a woman who had volunteered for more than two decades.
The letter was signed by 34 of Danada's 154 volunteers. But David Guritz, education director at Danada, said two people have contacted him since last week, asking to remove their name from the letter. Guritz said the signers told him they were unaware of the attachment that outlined the most serious accusations.
"Their intent was to start a dialogue with the district, not smear Danada's reputation," Guritz said.
Forest preserve Director Brent Manning responded to the accusations in a letter in late November, outlining a plan that included an internal review, as well as hiring an outside agency to assess the situation at Danada.
Guritz said the complaint letter did spur Danada to enact some changes, namely developing a plan to deal with overweight horses and improving communication with volunteers.
On Tuesday, the district will give an overview of Danada's operations. More information from the investigation's findings will be discussed on March 27. District officials are scheduled to meet directly with volunteers in late April.
Final results of all the efforts will be presented at a June meeting, Guritz said, and final recommendations will be woven into Danada's 5-year plan.