A Bond to Benefit the Community

By Brad McEwen

When a mutual friend first introduced fellow horseback riding enthusiasts Morgan Burnette and Kayla Myers, he no doubt knew the two women would likely bond over their shared love of all things horses.

But what he couldn’t have known is that the two women would form an immediate and powerful bond that has sparked the creation of a new non-profit that in less than two years is having an impressive impact on the community they love.

“Happy Trails originally started with me and her meeting on a trail ride and just starting a friendship and kind of talking to each other about what we see for the future of our community,” Kayla told me when we sat down recently to discuss the creation of the pair’s nonprofit, Happy Trails of SOWEGA. “I don’t even think we paid attention to the ride.”

“We’re a good match,” Morgan continued. “It’s funny. It was just one of those natural friendships right off the bat. That we’re trying to do something good and have turned into partners has been awesome too.”

The something good the two women are involved with is the newly designated 501(c)(3) that parlays the pair’s love of horseback riding, and their connections to the local “horse community,” into financial support for and awareness of different area causes and other nonprofits in need of assistance.

Like most nonprofits, the success of Happy Trails will ultimately be measured by its overall impact, but if the past few months are any indication, it will continue to be a positive force in Southwest Georgia. Already the organization has held seven trail rides benefitting a variety of causes and the women are fielding requests almost daily from individuals and organizations looking for support.

Despite the growing profile though, both Morgan and Kayla are quick to downplay what Happy Trails has accomplished—stressing that what they’re doing is just a small thing compared to what a lot of other organizations are doing in the community.

“I mean, it’s not even that we’re doing that much,” Morgan said. “It’s just kind of organizing this thing in the community that people can get behind. What we’re doing is not huge. It’s not comparable to some of the other nonprofits in this community, but our goal is just to help someone. And for that person or that organization we’re helping, it’s a big difference.”

It’s actually that concept of a person doing their part to make even the tiniest difference that lies at the heart of Happy Trails and is what first peaked my interest in the organization when Kayla’s dad, Lee County Co-Manager Mike Sistrunk, reached out to me at the Herald about covering the women’s first event.

At the time, Mike was just trying to help his daughter with a project she was working on, but I realized pretty quickly that she and Morgan had stumbled onto a pretty cool concept while simply trying to do a little something for a good cause.

“The first thing we did was for the Lee County Animal Shelter because they needed more than they were getting,” Morgan explained. “We said, ‘Well listen, we have these rides, we’re doing this anyway, so why not do this for a good cause?’”

So the duo decided to organize a trail ride at Chehaw park—where Morgan is the director of guest and public relations—and donate the entry fees to the shelter. To raise additional funds the girls added a silent auction with donated items which people who attended the ride could bid on while eating some donated BBQ. Additionally they added some entertainment and other things to help attract non-riders, which only aided the event’s success.

I covered that first ride and knew immediately—thanks to the solid attendance, positive vibe and out-pouring of support—that the women’s plan to host a follow-up ride later in the year would no doubt bear fruit.

It was after they hosted those two successful rides to benefit the shelter that the girls realized that their trail rides for a good cause concept could have a broader impact. But, they said, they were a little surprised at how quickly word spread about what they were doing.

“The community really started pouring in and saying, ‘We need help with this,’” Kayla said.

“’Have you thought about this? We have a problem. This person needs help,’” Morgan continued.

“I mean, we didn’t really think of Back the Blue, but we had someone come to us and mention it,” added Kayla. “Tom Gieryic found us and he was just like, ‘Have you thought about doing a ride for Back the Blue?’ “’Well no, but that sounds good; we’ll make it happen.’”

After organizing that Back the Blue Urban Trail Ride, which helped raise money to purchase body camera’s for the Lee County Sheriff’s Office, the Happy Trails concept continued to gather momentum and before long they were organizing a ride to benefit the Camp Osborne Boy Scout campground in Worth County that was devastated by the storms that raged through Southwest Georgia in January of 2017.

“Camp Osborne was a big one,” Morgan said. “It’s just grown from there. We just became an official nonprofit last year. And not because we want to collect money for ourselves. It just makes it easier to channel the money we raise to the people it needs to go to and it gives a benefit to those who are donating. The goal is not for Happy Trails to have any money.”

“If anything, it’s like if we do not have a ride set up and someone donated to us, okay, we can just put that toward the next thing that comes up,” added Kayla. “Everything goes to the community.”

Despite the fact that Morgan and Kayla are still in the process of figuring out the finer points of running a nonprofit—in addition to both working demanding, full-time jobs—they are undaunted by the extra work load in their lives simply due to the fact that it seems quite natural to both of them to be focused on helping the community.

In fact, while it was their shared love of horses that brought them together, it was their mutual affection for their community, and their desire to make a difference where they grew up that cemented their bond.

“I really think we’re both doers,” said Morgan.

“Very much so,” continued Kayla. “We both just have that drive in us that we want to impact our community in some positive way.

“I grew up here in Albany and my dad has always been a huge part of the community, with the different positions he’s held in Albany and Lee County, and I kind of got his personality as far as I don’t meet strangers. So just following him around has pushed me to want to do more around here where we live, where I grew up. I want to see it become a bigger, better place.”

“Same here,” added Morgan. “I’ve lived here all my live. I went off to school and I CHOSE to come back. Not everybody chooses to come back here and I’ve kind of always just been the quintessential cheerleader. If I’m doing it, I want to be all-in. I really want to do it.

“And I want to see this community be amazing because I really think it is.”

Not one to keep her feelings about community to herself, Morgan expanded on that notion, sharing that much of the drive that fuels her to work hard for both Chehaw and Happy Trails comes from her desire to combat what she sees as unnecessary negativity.

“I think we hear a lot of the negative all the time,” she said. “But I see the positives. I want to be out there promoting the positives.

“You hear negatives everyday about anything in general, but for some reason people in this community feel the need to share the negative. And I want people to know that I chose to be here. I see the positive.

And for Morgan and Kayla it goes beyond just seeing the positive. In their lives and through Happy Trails they both feel they can do something to affect change.

“If I see a negative, I’m going to work to change it,” Morgan stressed. “I’m not naïve. I know there’s some negative things out there, but I think it’s going to take people doing something to change it.”

“You can’t just sit there and wait for someone to change it for you. Be the someone who makes the change you want to see. I think that comes down to choosing to love the life you live right now. Happiness is a choice.”

Fortunately, Morgan said, her experiences with Happy Trails have strengthened her belief that there are a lot of like-minded people in this community—people who are willing to give their time, money and effort in hopes of doing something positive that needs to be done.

“That’s what’s been so great about Happy Trails—the community stepping up and helping,” she continued. “I mean anytime we’ve needed something, people have donated their time, their resources, their land for us to have rides on.”

“Yeah, we’ve had two or three people just recently who have called us and said, ‘Hey, if you have a future trail ride, come use our land,’” Kayla added. “The response from the community has been great. There’s been so many people who have stepped up to help.

“Whenever we’ve had a need, there’s been someone there to fill it.”

That so many members of the community have embraced Happy Trails and its mission to serve where it can does not surprise either Morgan or Kayla, despite the negativity that is so often present in and around the Albany area.

For proof that this community has so many incredible and caring people in its midst, Morgan said you have to look no further than the tragic situation that occurred last year.

“I think the people here, as a resource, are incredible,” Morgan said. “And obviously not just the horse community. You saw it when the storms hit. The little negative things people gripe about didn’t matter anymore. Everybody stepped up.

“Everybody came together and that’s the community I see on a daily basis.”

“Everything on the news is negative, negative, negative, but it doesn’t feel that way to me,” Kayla added. “In fact, I get picked on because I got married and we live in Ashburn now, but where do we go all the time? We’re here.

“This is home. It just feels right to be here and to be a part of it.

“I come out to events in the community and you just see a different side of Albany than you do on the news. Everything on there is a robbery or a murder. It’s always just the dark part. But like Morgan said, happiness is a choice and you should spread that around. We shouldn’t rely on storms and natural disasters to bring this community together. Seeing what we saw when the tornadoes hit, that’s what we need to see every day.”

“I know I sound super cheesy,” Morgan continued. “My favorite word is awesome and this community is awesome.”

Listening to the two women talk about their shared passion for service and their respect for their community, it was no wonder Happy Trails has been well-received. More importantly, though, it became clear to me that the bond the two have forged is a critical factor in their success.

That the two became fast friends isn’t that surprising once you spend some time with them. As they quite naturally finish each other’s sentences like some old high school pals, it’s easy to see how well they complement each other—something both of them are keenly aware of.

“It was just that kind of summer camp relationship,” Morgan explained. “It was like…”

“’Oh, you ride horses?’” Kayla continued.

“’You like this? I like this too,’” added Morgan. “’We are best friend now.’”

“If I’m not mistaken I believe we actually had that conversation,” Kayla said.

“That actually happened,” said Morgan.

“I was like, ‘Did we just become best friends?’” Kayla continued. “And she was like, ‘Yeah I think so.’ I mean it was a ‘Stepbrothers’ moment.

“But really I think when we started it was like, “Oh, okay, good acquaintances.’ But now, we each have someone who we can bounce ideas off of. And now it’s like, ‘Oh wait, you think that way too? Oh, that’s how you handle a situation? Okay, well we’re pretty good at this.’

“What makes us have such a good friendship is that we’re opposite in so many ways, but our strengths are so much alike.”

“It was providence,” Morgan finished. “It was fate. We were put together and that’s kind of how this started. It just felt like, it sounds so cheesy to say this, like destiny. It’s like we were brought together for a reason. We were given this opportunity and let’s do something with it besides just hang out and ride horses together.”

From my perspective this community can only benefit thanks to the fact that Morgan and Kayla not only became friends, but poured their love of horseback riding and community service into creating Happy Trails for the benefit of everyone.

And knowing that my hometown has two dedicated servants—willing to do what it takes to make even the slightest difference—in Kayla Myers and Morgan Burnette, gives me further confidence that the Albany area is in good hands.

There may be negatives, but from where I sit the biggest positive is folks like the ones behind Happy Trails.

To learn more about the organization or how you can get involved visit their Happy Trails of SOWEGA Facebook page, or stop by Tractor Supply on Ledo Road at 10 a.m. Saturday, April 28, for a special event to meet the horses of Happy Trails. The team will provide information on the organization, and about the health and care of horses, as well offering pony rides, pony painting and unicorn photos.

Connect with Brad – 229.405.7212 - brad.mcewen@abtgold.com - @BradGMcEwen 

Click here to catch up on previous Beyond the Bank Features