Erika McEneny Hanauer '09 was terrified of horses as a small child. That fear subsided over time, and at age 10, she started taking a weekly riding lesson. As her confidence grew, so did her love of horses. In high school, she qualified for the prestigious National Horse Show with her favorite horse, The General.
"The barn gave me a sense of belonging and a sense of community that the other sports I was in didn't give me," says Hanauer, a New Jersey native who now works in investor relations at Mudrick Capital Management, L.P. in New York City.
Hanauer hopes to provide that same sense of belonging to underprivileged youth through the Changing Leads Foundation, a 501(c)(3) non-profit organization she founded in 2014. Changing Leads partners with youth groups to identify at-risk children and connect them with therapeutic riding facilities in New York, New Jersey and Connecticut.
It's the perfect marriage, she says, of her three passions—horses, business and children.
In her first year at Lehigh, Hanauer rode on the university equestrian team. Then she discovered her love of business.
Her mother, Laurene, and her father, Tim McEneny '70, are both entrepreneurs, and Hanauer knew she wanted to pursue business herself. After earning a degree in finance with an accounting concentration, she accepted a full-time position as an analyst with Merrill Lynch in New York.
At that point, says Hanauer, "I kind of shifted all that passion I had for horses into finance." She eventually moved to the investment management corporation BlackRock, working first in their hedge fund solutions business and then moving into the institutional client business division, where she focused on endowments and foundation clients.
That's when her wheels started turning.
"I was thinking back to what made me really happy and grounded, and it was horses," Hanauer explains. "I love horses, I love business [and I wondered if] maybe I could marry those two with my love of children. I thought it would be such a great thing to give kids who maybe would not otherwise experience a horse the opportunity to feel that community and belonging that I felt when I was younger."
But she had no idea where to start.
Hanauer spoke with her clients about how to set up a 501(c)(3), and they told her to seek legal help. Hanauer found that help in a high school classmate, fellow rider and Lehigh alumna Jessica Herlihy '09, now an associate at Willkie Farr & Gallagher LLP in New York.
"To be able to use my legal skills for something that has been a lifelong passion of mine was exciting," says Herlihy, who joined the foundation's board and brought it on as a pro bono client for her law firm.
Joined by Hanauer's husband, Keith, they launched Changing Leads with a pilot program through Special People United to Ride (SPUR), a therapeutic riding center in New Jersey where Hanauer and Herlihy volunteered as high school students.
Social workers identify children in community groups who might benefit most from horse interaction. A typical program brings children to a barn once a week for eight weeks. Participants learn basic horse care and riding skills, and programs also utilize horse interaction as a way to discuss topics like nutrition, emotions and how individuals interact.
"We turn the horses out loose in a field and we see their individual personalities," explains Hanauer. "Just by nature, some are leaders and some are followers, some are bullies and some will be bullied. We use that to talk about how [the children] may feel at school. ... We ask them to identify what the horse's emotion is. This is something that's difficult for them to do oftentimes themselves, so the fact that they're observing and talking about it in a different way is kind of a cool thing."
Participants also develop empathy, responsibility and confidence, says Hanauer.
"You see [them] hesitant in the beginning," says Sara Tucker, executive director of New Canaan Mounted Troop, a participating barn. "They're taught how to approach a horse. [They learn to be] mindful of their personality and their approach and their presence with the horse. They start out timid, and by the end ... they're much more confident. They're leading horses in the stalls."
"Changing leads" refers to a horse's natural tendency to change its leading leg to keep balanced as it changes direction. Hanauer drew inspiration from this concept, and she hopes the Changing Leads experience might provide children with some balance and help them put their best foot forward. To learn more or get involved with the organization, visit changingleadsfoundation.org.