The Christmas pony

Every year, Judi Reinke visits hospitals, senior centers and orphanages with bagfuls of presents and her pony, Ralph

December 17, 2006|By Cassandra A. Fortin | Cassandra A. Fortin,Special to The Sun

Judi Reinke stuffed plush toys into red and blue gift bags.

"These baby dolls become like family to the people who receive them," Reinke said.

Then she picked up a shirt.

"I traveled to four states to get these shirts," she said, pointing to a heap of clear trash bags containing about 1,000 of the wrapped polo-style shirts.

"This isn't all the gifts I deliver," she said, standing in the dining room of her Carroll County farmhouse. "I have presents in the hallway, in the bedrooms and in the attic. It takes me weeks to get them all prepared and delivered."

Reinke, 57, was gathering presents to deliver -- for the 30th consecutive year -- as part of her annual gift-giving pilgrimage.

For the program she dubbed "The Ralph Project," Reinke loads gifts into her pickup truck and delivers them to more than 1,000 recipients in hospitals, senior centers and orphanages around the state.

She also brings her version of Santa Claus with her.

Reinke's traveling companion is not the jolly old man with a white beard and a fat belly. It is a female miniature pony dressed in red stockings and a Santa Claus hat. The first pony worked on the project for nearly 20 years. The current, pony, also named Ralph, has been spreading cheer to patients for nearly just as long.

Why a pony?

That is simple, said Reinke who in 1970 opened the Misty Manor Riding Stables in Marriottsville for abused animals.

"Horses are my life," said Reinke, a native Baltimorean, who got her first horse when she was 14. "They have brought me so much joy. And to be able to share that joy with others gives me great pleasure."

The idea for the program was born in 1976 when Reinke took a pony named Ralph to Old Court Nursing Center in Randallstown. Reinke and a friend took the pony to the center at the request of a dying jockey who wanted to ride a horse one last time.After the 80-year-old patient had his ride, Reinke took the pony into the center and visited about 150 patient rooms.

The pony was a hit, said Bernice Reynolds, who was the assistant director of Old Court at the time.

"Patients were hanging out the window to see the pony, when the jockey rode him," said Reynolds, who retired and moved to Martinsburg, W.Va. "They just loved it."

So did the pony, Reinke said.

Once inside the facility, he entered the elevator and walked around the place as though he belonged there. He stopped only at mirrors to preen, Reinke said.

"One lady who had not spoken in years started talking about her pony when she saw Ralph," Reynolds said.

The experience inspired Reinke, who decided to visit with Ralph at Christmas and deliver presents. But first, she and Reynolds made Ralph a Santa costume.

"Judi and I were little girls who did not play with dolls," Reynolds said. "Instead, we played with the pony and made costumes for it."

To raise money for gifts, Reinke held two horse shows per year.

Over time, she increased the number of places she visited, including annual visits to locations like Springfield Hospital Center, a state psychiatric hospital in Sykesville, and Seton Hill Manor, a long-term nursing facility in Baltimore.

During her visits, every patient receives a gift, she said. At Springfield, this includes as many as 500 people, said Betty Jean Maus, director of volunteer services.

Most of the patients respond positively, said Maus who met Reinke about 25 years ago.

"The pony's visit makes the patients' day," she said. "They start asking in the fall if the pony is going to come see them. It really makes a difference, because some of the patients do not get any other visitors."

It is like pet therapy, she said.

"When the patients see Ralph, their faces light up," Maus said.

The patients enjoy the pony when he comes into the hospital, Reinke said.

"When we go to Springfield, patients will say, `I don't see a pony!'" she said with a chuckle. "Then later, they come and whisper to me that they saw a pony, but if they say that, they will up their medication and they will never get out of the hospital."

Over the last three decades, Reinke has tried to visit at least one new facility each year.

As the program grew, she recruited several children, including her own, to act as Santa's elves. Reinke leads the pony into patient rooms, and the children pass out presents.

"My daughter is kind of shy, but when she delivered the presents, she never missed a beat," Reinke said. "That is until she gave a man with no legs a pair of socks."

Reinke recalled some of the other memorable deliveries.

One year, a 104-year-old woman who was a patient at Seton Hill danced for the pony. "When she finished, she told me that was her last dance," Reinke said. "And it was."

Another year, a Jewish woman who had been in a concentration camp during World War II told her son about her experience and then gave Ralph her only valuable possession -- a strand of pearls.

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