Five years ago, Jennifer Crooks gave up an international showjumping career to improve the lives of vulnerable children in Ethiopia. Today, what she’s accomplished is worthy of any podium.
Some childhood joys transcend all boundaries of geography, culture, and experience, and it appears that a pony of your own is one of them.
For years, international show jumper for Ireland turned international aid worker Jennifer Crooks tried to get a horse for Uryadi’s Village, a self-sustaining village and international non-profit for orphaned children located in Soddo, Ethiopia.
Finally, in the summer 2022, the Founder and Executive Director got her wish, in the somewhat unlikely form of ‘Timbit.’
“Timbit had to walk for a week to get here, because [he was] coming from across the country. Finally, in he comes, and he’s this medium chestnut pony, with a white face, and blue eyes, and white socks—maybe two years old, maybe younger,” she says.
“He came in, and my first thought was, Oh, my God, he’s not going to live for another week. He’s lame in all four legs, and he weighs, like, two pounds.”
With his distinctive chrome markings, blue eyes, and instant celebrity status among Uryadi’s children, however, there was no replacing Timbit. He had to make it, and thankfully, he had an international celebrity of his own on deck to help. That man: Brazilian Olympic gold medal-winning show jumper, Rodrigo Pessoa, who happily stepped up to become Timbit’s sponsor.
“Timbit is now a two-year-old, very healthy little stallion,” says Crooks, who traveled to Soddo in early 2023 with a child’s saddle, bridle, and helmets in tow.
Her daughter Sophie, 19, Crooks’ resident rider-daughter, was given the job of breaking the pony. “Sophie was long-lining Timbit. I said, ‘You have two weeks to get him broke.’
“And she was like, ‘Two weeks?’
“I said, ‘Yes, you got this.’
“The funny thing is, he was so mellow, the first day we put a saddle and bridle on him, we put a kid on him too,” Crooks says. “This pony, somebody ran up behind him, and he got hit with a ball, and he’s so bomb-proof, because he lives among the children. Nothing spooks him, and the kids are so excited.”
Ponies aside, bringing joy and aid to orphaned children in Ethiopia has become an all-consuming passion for Crooks, a mom of 23 children with her husband, trainer Mike Crooks. All but four of the Crooks’ brood are adopted, and many of them have special needs. The first of their adopted children came from China. It wasn’t until the Crooks family adopted Millie, Jonah, and Mahlia from Addis Ababa in Ethiopia that Jennifer first learned of the country’s great need.
Ethopia currently has six million orphaned children, the highest percentage in Sub-Saharan Africa. What’s more, deep-seated cultural attitudes in rural regions, such as Soddo, mean that orphaned children are often stigmatized by their communities, especially in times when food and basic necessities are scarce. In the same way, children with special needs are often viewed as cursed.
“When you’re in a developing country, and you’re fighting for enough food for your own children, it’s hard to think outside [your own perspective],” Crooks explains.
“I think there’s so much generational trauma with famine and starvation; it’s one of the oldest countries in the world. So, you’re looking at years and years of people fighting to survive. Many just haven’t been able to develop a compassion for people outside their family.”
Growing up in New York City, Hong Kong, and Princeton, New Jersey (where she learned to ride), Crooks comes to Uryadi’s Village with far different life experience, but a singular and longstanding determination to help children. “I always wanted to adopt, and as we continued to add to our family, and especially after I was in Ethiopia and saw this immense need, it was like, what can we do so we can adopt all the kids in the world? We’re trying, but we can’t,” Crooks jokes.
“So the question became, what can we do for the kids that are going to stay behind?”
It was that motivation that became the driving force behind Uryadi’s Village. Founded in 2014, the non-profit was named for Crooks’ top horse, S.F. Uryadi, a KWPN mare she competed at the five-star level, including multiple Nations Cups for Ireland (where her parents were born). Today, Uryadi’s Village provides food, shelter, education, and medical services for just under 100 vulnerable children in Ethiopia.
But it hasn’t stopped there.
By partnering with its wider Soddo community, the Village is helping to create a self-sustaining model for what is possible in the developing world. The organization grows and produces nearly all its own food through the use of permaculture and other sustainable methods to support the needs of its inhabitants (think: rain water capture and filtration systems; solar panels for renewable energy).
By hiring local employees, the Village stimulates the region’s economy, while also giving back to the wider rural community through the building of a Montessori preschool, health and physical therapy clinics, a library, computer rooms, and more.
“We have this incredible bond with our community that I think has set us apart, because nobody in our community is suffering because of the kids,” says Crooks, noting that Uryadi’s Village has established a School Sponsorship program to support the education of local children through donations from aboard. In addition, a bi-annual grain-sharing program was created to support the Village’s elderly and disabled neighbors, ensuring that no one in the community goes hungry during the rainy season. Most importantly: they’re helping to shift attitudes in the process.
“When we do our grain sharing, [our orphaned children] deliver the grain to our older neighbors and those with disabilities. And so, they see the kids as giving to them, and that’s really shifting that [cultural] feeling about orphaned children.
“Also, having an international presence there, just walking the walk and interacting with the kids, has been huge in terms of shifting that,” adds Crooks, whose son Hunter, 24, spent 2021 in Soddo and plans to return to Uryadi’s Village for another five-year period when he graduates with his master’s degree in humanitarian aid and conflict next year.
Thanks in large part to changing mindsets, Uryadi’s Village is currently taking the next steps by launching a new Family Sponsorship program for children with disabilities.
“As we’ve been able to model that kids with special needs have the same value as kids without special needs, families are starting to come out of their houses—because kids with special needs are often hidden in a back room,” explains Crooks, who says even that is a best-case scenario.
In many instances, she explains, families are forced to give up their children to orphanages when they can no longer care for their medical or nutritional needs.
“The $175 a month provided by the Family Sponsorship Program basically sponsors the family to be able to keep their child, by providing medical, nutritional, emotional, and developmental therapeutic care.”
Fortunately, if the children of Uryadi’s Village are any indication, the new program has a strong probability of success in the wider Soddo community. “In the Village, we have a number of kids with disabilities, and none of our [kids without disabilities] look at those kids any differently,” says Crooks.
“They’re not acting. They’re not doing it just because they’re supposed to. They just don’t think of those kids as any different.”
Few riders have scaled the heights that Jennifer Crooks did aboard S.F. Uryadi; fewer still have chosen to give up a successful career in show jumping to help children in the developing world. But Crooks, who currently lives in Malvern, Pennsylvania—and makes as many as four trips to Ethiopia every year—says her lifelong love of horses helped to prepare her for her current chapter in many ways.
“I think trying to understand nonverbal communication is huge; so is problem solving with somebody that doesn’t speak your language. Those two things would be my biggest takeaways [from horsemanship],” Crooks reflects. “And then determination; you can be in a big class, and have four faults, and four faults, and keep trying, and then, eventually, you’re going to jump double-clear.
“The sport has such highs and lows, and being able to learn to metabolize that has helped. I think international aid work also has those highs and lows.”
As the mother of several children with special needs, including her adopted son, Tegan, Crooks has learned to adapt to challenges as they come. Today, she’s equally adept at changing a gastronomy (G) tube for a child as she once was jumping big, international tracks around the globe.
“Tegan is seven now—he’s fighting Batten Disease, which is like Lou Gehrig’s disease. It’s a tough diagnosis. He wasn’t supposed to live to age three, but he’s doing great, because we have all kinds of alternative therapies for him,” she explains. “He is my hero of a kid; he sleeps in my bed and he is with me 24/7.”
Not long ago, a child with Tegan’s diagnosis would have been hard-pressed to stay in Uryadi’s Village. Now, thanks in part to continued international funding—an impressive 85 percent of which come solely from the West Coast equestrian community—Uryadi’s Village has multiple special needs children who are now able to be cared for on-site. In fact, the Uryadi’s Village Sponsored Children page could easily double as a tbird grand prix start-list.
“The equestrian community has been very supportive long-term,” says Crooks. “People like Susie Hutchinson, and Eric Navet, and Beezie Madden—they’ve been long-term sponsors for years now.
“Thunderbird has also been so supportive by giving us that space for the Village as a charity partner,” she adds, noting that tbird CEO Jane Tidball and President Chris Pack have been particularly helpful. But that comes as no surprise to Crooks, who says she herself benefited from the ‘family first’ mentality that tbird has always cultivated.
“Thunderbird would definitely be what I consider [my competition] home,” she says. “You feel supported by just being there. My riding was developed at Thunderbird; it was jumping on that field that gave Uryadi and I the confidence of being able to jump on grass fields all over the world.
“I think [tbird] having such a family vibe to it, it really gives you the confidence to step up to that next level.”
And, as the mother of 23 children, a big, supportive family is something Jennifer Crooks knows a thing or two about. When traveling to Ethiopia, her younger children with more extensive needs, like Tegan, are often assisted by their older siblings, who travel along—not just to help their mother, but to see their ‘brothers and sisters’ in Uryadi’s Village.
“All of my kids, but specifically my older kids, consider the kids in the village their siblings. They’re so close, and they’ll all talk on WhatsApp all the time,” she says.
“They’re really good role models for the kids in the Village, because they work well with the kids with special needs. My older kids can feed with a G-tube, and treat a seizure, and so they spend a lot of time just modeling what they do, which really helps our kids in the village to do the same.”
It’s a hand-me-down kind of ethos, one that kids learn from their parents and then pass along. And while Jennifer Crooks may seem super-human by many standards, she likes to keep her life mottos wholly down to earth. “I live by example in Ethiopia,” she says. “I think that’s really why we have the belief and the real trust of the community.
“This is my passion. This is my life. I don’t come in and say, ‘Everybody should do this.’ I do it. I live it myself.”
If you’re interested in learning more about Uryadi’s Village or how you can support their efforts, please visit: uryadisvillage.org.
This story originally appeared in tbird’s Premium magazine.