Local Student Takes Top Prize In Third Annual Pitch Your Passion Competition
By Cookie Steponaitis
photo by providedAnna Willenbaker.
Truth be told Anna Willenbaker may just have had an advantage over her competition in the St. Michael’s College Business Contest. While Pitch Your Passion competition is open to all students interested in business, senior Anna Willenbaker’s Better Days Therapeutic Riding Program is based on real life experience. Anna Willenbaker has a passion for people and animals that surpasses the normal job hours in life.
The psychology degree Willenbaker will receive when she graduates in May 2018 represents the end of a five-year period of tenacity and determination that few people are capable of. Working full time and overtime on a local dairy farm and attending Saint Michaels’ College full- time while maintaining incredibly high grades has been the daily pattern for Willenbaker during the past five years. Willenbaker has a business minor that qualified her for the competition and went through a multi-round process pitch competition that began in October with a panel hearing eighteen different pitches and ideas and advancing to the finals only ten. Each contestant delivered a five-minute pitch with a three-minute question and answer before a panel of judges comprised of five alumni and three or more recently retired employees at the McCarthy Arts Center Recital Hall in the finals. Willenbaker emerged victorious and was the recipient of a $1,000.00 cash prize. The event is hosted by the student-run Saint Michael’s College Business Society and the Department of Business and Accounting.
Starting out with rescuing animals at a young age, Willenbaker learned that while the animals need rescuing, they in return often rescue the people with all the love they give and the lessons they teach.” I started rising horses when I was about five-year-old,” shared Willenbaker. “From them on I had a passion for these creatures. I purchased my first horse Takoda at nine years old with money I had saved up. I also joined 4-H at this point and remained a part of the club until I was 18. A couple of year after my first horse I began rescuing, rehabilitating and adopting out horses from bad situations from neglect to those on the road to slaughter. With this, I started a side business “Shell house Chicken Eggs” where I raised around 125 laying hens and was a large member of the Vergennes Farmers Market and sold eggs. This helped me to become involved with the farm to school movement and I eventually became the first-place business entrepreneur for the ACORN Farm to school competition while still in high school. After graduating I continued to train horses and started teaching as well. During my first year at college I began my first position on a dairy farm as an assistant herdsman. This was one of the best experiences of my life. I currently work full time as a herdsman in Addison and I teach and have picked up my first therapy client. I also became a member of PATH international and started by journey to becoming a certified therapeutic riding instructor.” About the win, Willenbaker shared, “This win meant the absolute world to me. It showed me that this idea I’ve been dreaming of for so many years is actually going to be a reality. It was my first time to gather my thoughts as well as to get my idea exposed to the public. Besides that, I also finally have been gifted as well. For the second round I won with PYP at Saint Michael’s they gifted me with 1000.00 toward capital funding and a chance to complete in the competition at the collegiate level in February for a cash prize of around $ 7500.00.”
Combining her passion for horses and love of helping others, Willenbaker feels one step closer to adding another strategy in her community to combat mental health needs and explore alternative physical therapy approaches. Willenbaker knows firsthand how the bond between equines and people can have incredible benefits both physically and mentally. While the finish line is appearing on the calendar as we roll into the New Year, Willenbaker knows she has many miles to go, several papers to write and exams to take before her college dreams are realized. She can often be seen multi-tasking and eating and studying at the same time when she has breaks from her job milking cows. Willenbaker, like many Vermonters, knows the benefit of hard work, tenacity and keeping her dreams in front of her but does admit some weeks her 80 plus hour schedule gets a bit daunting. Her eyes are firmly set on her prize and as the New Year brings us to the process of making resolutions, Willenbaker is way ahead of the game. She started her college goals five years ago and has never once stepped aside or lost hope. Perhaps in 2019 or 2020 the county will see a new sign for Better Times Therapeutic Riding Program and stop in to salute Anna Willenbaker who had a dream and has never wavered to reach it. In conclusion, Willenbaker shared, ‘I want to thank my community for all they have done for me so I was able to make it where I am today. Not only the incredible generous scholarships after graduating high school, but the general support and encouragement when I needed it the most. I can’t wait to graduate and to give back to my community and to become a warrior for mental health and show we do have better days ahead.” Congratulations Anna from the Valley Voice readers on your award and more importantly a reminder to all of us that hard work never hurts anyone and dreams can be achieved with effort, drive and a passion to bring about change.