Orange County Register Hero: Elizabeth Zarkos saves kids and horses
BY SAMANTHA DUNN / ORANGE COUNTY REGISTER
Like any horse-crazy little girl, young Elizabeth Zarkos collected Breyer figurines of blood-bay Arabians, black Thoroughbreds, buckskin Mustangs and more. And, like any horse-crazy little girl, she soon discovered that the plastic-molded legs on those toys didn’t hold up too well galloping around bedspreads and jumping over teddy bears.
But when her plastic horses snapped off a leg or two, instead of throwing them away and asking mommy for another, Zarkos used Scotch tape to bandage their broken legs and put them up on the shelf to recover.
Her father’s career in resort management meant the family was often uprooted, so sometimes during packing up to move, her mother would “accidentally” lose the ones with lots of tape.
Still, Zarkos tried to keep all she could, because those horses were a constant in the life of this admittedly “ultra shy” girl, who says she struggled with constantly changing elementary schools, 11 in all. In high school at Newport Beach, she kept her drawings of horses in her notebooks to herself.
“I didn’t want to set myself up for people to make fun of me, I guess,” says the 37-year-old Lake Forest resident, who is now a teacher. “That’s why when I get students who are a little bit off, I get it. I’m a little bit off, too. We can talk about weirdness together.”
You don’t have to be Sigmund Freud to see the roots of what led the little girl to be the woman she is today: Weekdays Zarkos teaches independent study in the Educational Options program in Orange Unified School District to teenagers who, for educational or emotional reasons, don’t fit the standard high school routine. Then, each day after work and on every weekend, she dons her paddock boots and makes her way to a bare-bones stable in Trabuco Canyon.
There she trains horses, mucks stalls, tends wounds and teaches volunteers about horses as the founder of Hanaeleh Horse Rescue. Her mission is to find loving homes for abused, neglected or slaughter-bound horses. She does this with a finger crushed and mangled by a half-blind gelding and a back injury that means she’s “only got so many rides in me a day.”
At night she works to finish her doctorate in education at Chapman University, where she is writing her dissertation analyzing how counselors decide which students to recommend for continuation high schools.
By all accounts, her dedication to both horses and students is above and beyond.
“She is like this scaffolding, supporting and guiding them. It is almost undetectable how much influence she has. Human or animal, she helps them get on the right path and be better,” says teaching colleague Alisa Kopp of Tustin “She helps everybody be their best selves.”
Kopp nominated Zarkos as a hero because “she can’t give this to someone else or turn it into a bag of horse feed. She passes on everything she has – her money, her education, her time – and yet when you ask her, she’ll tell you she’s living her dream,” Kopp says.
Zarkos has given up a lot financially to keep the horse rescue afloat; donated her time and the equestrian facility to local pony clubs, Girl Scout troops and other community organizations; and give private riding lessons to budding horse enthusiasts. Donations and the $1,000 horse adoption fees pay for the stable rent, horse feed and other costs to maintain the rescue. But Zarkos still forks over up to $10,000 a year – down from the $20,000 it took when she began the rescue in 2004.
“She’s single and could be going neat places and doing a lot for herself, but she doesn’t,” Kopp says, citing the modest condo where Zarkos has long lived and her small economy car that “she’s had forever.”
Where Zarkos does splurge is on her advanced college degree, but Kopp says even that is a means for her to be in a position to serve students better.
“She surely didn’t give up on her dreams and she’s not giving up on her education,” says Kopp, who thinks Zarkos is a great role model for young girls like her daughter, Corrine, whom Zarkos taught to ride.
Tom Wilson, Zarkos’ thesis adviser at Chapman, says Zarkos’ interest in alternative education “relates to her beautiful interest in dropout horses.” He believes both spring from a profound sense she has that unequal treatment of any creature “is a violation of their dignity that isn’t fair, a feeling that hits you in the gut that ‘this is not right.’”
That sense of justice spurs her dedication to horse rescue. “They are warm, they are loving, they are sentient creatures, and we don’t respect them and we don’t listen to them. And they built the entire Western civilization. We need to value them – not only their spirit and courage they give us now, but the heritage they have offered us,” Zarkos says.
On a windy afternoon when rain turned the dirt road to Hanaeleh into muddy slop, Zarkos talked as she cared for the equine residents – and adopted stray cats, two bottle-fed orphan sheep and a small flock of chickens who come running when called for dinner. “I will say this is all my mother’s fault,” Zarkos jokes. “She allowed me to have animals because she thought my maternal instinct was so strong, she was afraid if she didn’t give me something to care for, I’d be pregnant at 16.”
The strategy might have worked too well for the childless Zarkos. The care she gives both students and animals comes from the same maternal well. “I treat them pretty much the same,” Zarkos says. “They need structure. Horses really need structure, but it can’t become imposing where it starts pressing on their personality, so it is a very fine line of allowing their personality to come through and still retaining enough of a structure so they feel secure. Just like in the classroom.”
But all this prompts the question, why? Why does she get up every day when she’d rather pull the covers over her head? When her body aches? When she knows she’s investing in creatures who will never pay her back?
“Horses are my thing,” she says simply. “Everyone should have their thing. If everyone would pick one thing, just one, and did it to the best of their ability – I mean went all in, put all your passion and love into it – the world will be an amazing place.”
Little wonder she named her horse rescue Hanaeleh, after the mythical land in the children’s ballad “Puff the Magic Dragon,” where both kids and creatures romped happily. It is the world she works to create.
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