‘Kids That Come From Her Neighborhood – They Don’t Make It’: How The Metropolitan Equestrian Team is Changing the Lives of Children in New York City

‘Kids That Come From Her Neighborhood – They Don’t Make It’: How The Metropolitan Equestrian Team is Changing the Lives of Children in New York City

Ten years ago, Jane DaCosta was facing a major crossroads in her life. She was recently laid off, was a newly single mother of a one-year-old daughter, and had no direction. Sitting on her bed, eyes puffy and bloodshot from crying, an idea popped into Jane’s head. A former collegiate rider and, later, a member of the military, she knew the value of teamwork when times were tough. She grabbed her laptop and simply started Googling “teams”, “high school teams”, “collegiate teams”, and her idea morphed into a vision.

Jane was to start her own nonprofit horseback riding program. She was going to change the lives of young kids through the power of horses. She was going to get kids – who never thought college was in the cards – merit-based scholarships to universities throughout the country. And she was going to do it despite all the people who didn’t believe in her.

Two years later, on April 1, 2010, the Metropolitan Equestrian Team (MET) was born. A 501c3 nonprofit organization, MET was committed to helping aspiring equestrians grades three to 12 by developing their talents through education and horseback riding competitions and turning dreams of a college education into a reality.

'Go Ride Your Bike Down Ocean Parkway'

A daughter of immigrant parents from Guyana, Jane grew up in Brooklyn, N.Y. Her family was extremely poor, so horseback riding was never even a blip on Jane’s radar. A small trip to a dude ranch in the Adirondacks piqued Jane’s interest in horses, but when she asked her mother if she could begin lessons, the response she received was, “Good luck. Go ride your bike down Ocean Parkway.” And that’s exactly what Jane did.

Pedaling down the parkway, Jane came across a barn near Prospect Park and saw a woman taking care of her horse outside. Jane, 12 years old and a complete stranger, marched right up to the woman and asked to ride. The woman replied, “If you take care of my horses, I’ll teach you.”

“Growing up in Brooklyn and riding horses is such a rare opportunity. It just happened to be she was a police officer and had no children. She taught me everything I know about riding. She bought me clothes, she bought me horses, she bought me trailers – I was so thankful,” Jane says. “To raise me became a community effort – I was raised in a barn because my mom was working two jobs.”

Although Jane was riding and had a supportive community around her, negative influences at school led her down a steep path to trouble. However, horses kept Jane focused on her goals. Following high school graduation, she enrolled at Long Island University Post and competed on their equestrian team. But as her student loans piled up, Jane had to make a decision on what to do next. Inspired by her uncle, who was a veteran, and mother, who dreamt of serving but was unable to, Jane decided to join the Navy in 1998.

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For the next four years, Jane served in the U.S. Navy as a Petty Officer 3rd Class Electronic Warfare Technician on board USS Harry S. Truman, an aircraft carrier. She traveled the globe and worked in the Combat Directional Center conducting War operations through Anti-Ship Missile Defense and Intelligence – a world away from Brooklyn.

Following her discharge from service, Jane was burning the candle at both ends. She was studying to become an attorney while working at AIG full-time, but she was laid off during the financial crunch in 2008. That’s when MET was born.

The Value of an Equal Playing Field

Unemployed and nearly bankrupt, Jane took a chance. She approached Anthony Danza at Jamaica Bay Riding Academy in Brooklyn, N.Y., and asked for a favor that would change the course of her life forever.

“[Anthony has] known me since I was a kid and I called him and said, ‘I have this plan.’ He probably thought I was crazy. He asked how much money I had and I said, ‘I have $300 in the bank, my car payment is due, but I promise you this program is going to be amazing.’”

With financial backing and a support system in place, Jane built MET into what it is today. With the help of a community that believes in her and her mission, Jane has formed a solid donation network to keep the program thriving. Today, MET supports riders of all levels and competes in both the Interscholastic Equestrian Association and Athletic Equestrian League.

"We wanted to be able to have a nonprofit equestrian organization that people could donate to; we have children in our program that can and cannot afford to ride. Our program is tuition-based and there are children in our program that are financially-assisted.”

Attracting kids from all demographics and financial backgrounds, the 40 kids on MET all live within New York City – Staten Island, Brooklyn, the Bronx, Queens, Manhattan. Kids travel near and far to be able to ride with Jane. Clearly defining MET as a riding academy, not a show barn where a groom takes care of your horse, Jane emphasizes the importance of teamwork and responsibility.

"It doesn’t matter if you jump cross-rails or if you jump three-foot or over three-foot. We’re all doing the same thing and we’re all learning at the same time and help each other."

“We’re never going to project and say that we are a show barn. We’re never going to project and say that we are a show team. We are an education program that [develops skills from the ground up]. And when they get to a certain level, we send them off to college and let them follow their endeavors,” Jane explains.

As one of the few MET members to own their own horse, Noelle Marino recognizes that equestrian sport can sometimes be ostracizing. But her love for horses and passion for her fellow MET teammates keeps her excited to continue excelling in the sport.

“What I love most is that we’re all on an equal playing field,” Noelle says. “It doesn’t matter if you jump cross-rails or if you jump three-foot or over three-foot. We’re all doing the same thing and we’re all learning at the same time and help each other.”

Be Better Than the Hand You're Dealt

Encouraging good behavior and getting good grades in school is one of the most important aspects of MET as the goal of the program is to give students their best shot at a dream college education.

"At least 75 percent of kids get merit-based scholarships, if not more. When they pick a school, I ask them which schools they like and then I go talk with the coaches before they even apply,” Jane explains. “There’s nothing wrong with a community school, but we want them to understand that their dreams are so much bigger. A lot of kids want to put a price tag on college, and I tell them to shoot for the stars.”

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For current MET member, Serinah Palafox, attending college was never in the cards for her growing up. She didn’t have the money, had never ridden a horse before, and lived over two hours away from Jamaica Bay Riding Academy. But what she did have was drive and determination to make it all work.

Serinah grew up in Port Richmond, Staten Island, to immigrant parents from Mexico. No one in her family has ever gone to college, nor ever dreamt of attending. But Serinah is different. For a 17-year-old girl, she knows exactly what she wants: attend West Point and become a combat medic in the United States Army.

"I want them to understand that they’re responsible for their own endeavors, and if they put the word ‘can’t’ in their vocabulary, they’ve already lost."

Serinah is well on her way to achieving her goals and is living proof that you can be successful with little finances in an expensive sport such as horseback riding. With the help of Jane and MET, Serinah has already learned to jump a course in less than one year and is a member of the Junior Reserve Officers’ Training Corps (JROTC) at Port Richmond High School. On top of her studies, JROTC, and college applications, Serinah still makes it her priority to attend team practices with MET every week – despite the two hour commute each way.

“She’s a real hard kid. She articulates well, she’s very intelligent, gets good grades,” Jane says of Serniah. “Kids that come from her neighborhood – they don’t make it. Now you’re talking about making it in the equestrian sport."

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Regardless of the strenuous commute to and from practice and her long days at school, Serniah says Jane is the most influential person she’s ever met.

“She’s given me all these opportunities,” Serniah says of her mentor. “Being able to get an education at West Point, she’s opened my eyes to the equestrian industry, she’s taught me proper horsemanship skills – she’s literally the best.”

Grooming the Leaders of the Future

Getting as many kids as possible into college with merit-based scholarships is a big goal for Jane and MET, but she also hopes to impart long-lasting wisdom that will stick with her riders for the rest of their lives.

“I want them to develop a sense of leadership. Yes, we’re on horses. Yes, it’s all great. But I want them to walk away from this with leadership skills. And I want them to understand that they’re responsible for their own endeavors, and if they put the word ‘can’t’ in their vocabulary, they’ve already lost,” Jane says.

“Am I outspoken? Yeah. Am I unfiltered? Yeah. But I feel like I’m the advocate for these kids because I’m not sitting on a soapbox and saying the story of belief. I’m saying a story of what has happened to me and how this can be a benefit for you. Because if it wasn’t for that cop standing on the side of the road noticing that there was a little girl on a bike with her hair standing up thinking ‘maybe this kid needs a leg up’, where would I have been?”

Feature photo courtesy of Metropolitan Equestrian Team.