Founder Debbie Rocha with nine-year-old quarter horse, Jax has retired from teaching to focus more time at SRD Straightening Reins in Santa Clarita. Dan Watson/The Signal

Straightening Reins founder retires from teaching to focus on nonprofit

Deborah Rocha has worn many hats over the past few years. She was a teacher for 34 years, Saugus Teachers Association president for 11 years and founder of SRD~Straightening Reins, a nonprofit that works to improve teen and adolescent mental health through equine therapy, back in 2011.

Now, Rocha has decided it’s time for retirement so she can focus her time, energy and resources to growing Straightening Reins’ counseling services. 

“We are grateful for her time and service in the district, and we wish her well in her future endeavors,” said Julie Olsen, president of the Saugus Unified School District board. “And we wish her success with her future endeavors for Straightening Reins.”

Rocha began to see that she couldn’t continue to split her focus and put in the effort she wanted to each aspect of her life, which made her realize it was time for this big change. 

Founder Debbie Rocha has retired from teaching to focus more time at SRD Straightening Reins in Santa Clarita. Dan Watson/The Signal

“It became pretty apparent that mental health is becoming more of an issue,” Rocha said. “The time that I have now to commit to what I’m doing is important. I am so happy, I am so fulfilled and it’s a different place in my life that I’m now seeing.” 

She described the feeling she gets when she sees the positive effects that a day at the ranch can have on a child suffering from mental illness, and said, “It was the right thing (to do), and it was for the right reasons.”  

Throughout her time teaching, Rocha has taught anywhere from kindergarten all the way up through adult education, and said she has been able to bring a lot of skills she’s learned from teaching into helping the children at the ranch. 

“I’m thrilled that I have the time to be (at the ranch), but I will say in the last (month) since I’ve retired, my calendar is fuller than I ever thought it was going to be,” Rocha added. “We’re in the right place at the right time, growing and seeing things happen, so I’m excited about that. It’s exciting to see that things are coming together.”  

Founder Debbie Rocha with Palamino, Jax, left, and mustang Mia, has retired from teaching to focus more time at Straightening Reins in Santa Clarita. Dan Watson/The Signal

Straightening Reins has already begun expanding services, including partnering with more foster youth and taking on more case management, which Rocha considers their biggest expansion as of yet. 


They’re also continuing to work with the Goodwill American Job Center of California to create paid work experience opportunities for youth as well as using their recent grant from Sunair Children’s Foundation of Altadena to improve executive services. 

Rocha is working with school districts to develop a plan for alternative schooling, so kids can still get an education while feeling safe and allowing them to address their mental health issues.

Just last week, Straightening Reins also received a $24,000 grant through the Foster Family Foundation for general operations, which Rocha said is going to fund two school programs to go onto the school’s campus. 

Founder Debbie Rocha has retired from teaching to focus more time at Straightening Reins in Santa Clarita. Dan Watson/The Signal

Rocha is still in search of a larger and more permanent facility that’s at least 5 acres, so they can return to riding the horses, but she said she’s hopeful. 

“We’ve done a lot of expanding already, but we’re not done yet,” Rocha said. “I think there are a lot of pieces involved in mental health that we’ve started to expand on. Everybody needs something different. If they get the mental health piece on track, then they can tackle the rest. First and foremost is protecting them so they’re safe and not going to want to check out — that they have a sense of hope and that they (know they) matter.”

Straightening Reins has begun hosting monthly open barns, so families can come to the ranch and learn more about the services they offer, which are scheduled the first Monday of the month from 6 to 7 p.m. as well as the first Saturday from 11 a.m. to noon.  

For more information on Straightening Reins, visit srdstraighteningreins.org.

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