It’s all horsing around for this survivor
By Melanie Haid
“Everything is grief.”
While this may seem pessimistic, Spirit’s Promise founder Marisa Striano says it really isn’t. She is surrounded by horses on her beautiful ranch in Riverhead, on the North Fork, and after divorcing twice, surviving breast cancer, enduring a double mastectomy and helping other people work through their grief through rehabilitation and Equus life coaching, you would think it would wear a person down to the point of no return. It hasn’t.
“It’s like living the life you were always meant to live,” says Striano, even if it doesn’t look the way you’d imagined it to look. “But you have to get through a lot of stuff before you get there.”
Striano is founder and president of Spirit’s Promise Equine Rescue and Rehabilitation — known to most as Spirit’s Promise — which she started 10 years ago. The equine rescue program combines Striano’s love for horses, specifically those that have been abused, neglected or unwanted, according to her website, paired with helping people overcome trauma, grief and more.
This, in one way or another, was always her plan. When she was 6 years old, Striano declared to her parents that she would have a farm someday. Though they laughed it off as the imaginative nature of a child, some 41 years later, after many twists and turns and shifts in her profession, she did indeed get there.
Striano, 57, grew up in Plainview until 13 before her family — made up of her parents and two younger sisters Christine and Alissa — moved to Manhasset. Her parents taught her the value of hard work, she said. Her father owned Unity Electric for some time, and both of her parents instilled the importance of giving back through philanthropy from a young age in their girls.
“When we moved from Plainview to Manhasset, [we] lived in the back of a country club,” Striano says. But she was always drawn to the “working man,” she says, and the feeling of creating something and seeing your work come to life in a way that was physical spoke to her. “I call it ‘abstract living,’ where you kind of do the same thing,” she says. “You’re in banking, and it’s like the same job every day, and then you hope to more up the ladder. I wanted to see my work.”
After graduating from Stonehill College in Massachusetts in 1985 with a psychology degree, she worked as a special education teacher, then in the garment industry at Escada, then at Unity Electric doing electrical maintenance for her father, before meeting her first husband there. Then, she moved on to her own store, called Jessie’s Closet, which she liquidated after meeting her second husband.
And now? Spirit’s Promise and her personal wellness brand, Marisa’s, are the focuses of most of her time.
From the first moment on the phone, Striano radiates an easy nature. Her sense of humor, and the way that she can make you feel like you know her, is not something that can be taught — rather an energy that makes her work possible and impacts everyone in her life positively.
Similarly, love came easily in some ways to her, but more difficult in other ways too. She was married and divorced twice, but from her first marriage came her two children, Jessie, now 26, and Pete, 25, who is named after her father, Peter.
Jessie works with her as the interim director of Spirit’s Promise, focusing on the administrative side of the business. After about two years of toiling in the city, Jessie took over the barn of about 20 horses and started to learn the finances more. “We never really had anybody [taking care of finances] — my mom was just like kind of in charge of everything. So, we were like a small business, of course, but she was taking on way too much at once. So, I told her that I would take on the finances a little bit at a time, I would take on insurance…and then, time went on, and I pretty much was just like working full-time at the farm.”
Now Jessie and her mom work together all the time, an ode to their close relationship that has been a major part of Striano’s strength throughout her life. She was diagnosed with breast cancer on May 13, 2018 — her birthday, Mother’s Day and her son’s college graduation — “a trifecta,” Striano called it. After getting a double mastectomy rather than going through chemotherapy, she decided that she was just going to take life as it came.
“I decided that I was going to wake up in the morning and say, ‘God, I just…universe, I give this up to you,’” she says. “Whatever you want me to do, please send me a sign.”
Through her own grief and overcoming the obstacles in her own life, Striano found solace in helping others.
Her younger sister Alissa added that Striano, especially after her double mastectomy, “was incredibly strong, and very resilient. She was vulnerable and open, and she shared her story as a way to heal, and I think that’s what my sister does. She shares her pain, herself, with others, to help others heal, and she leads by example.”
“I want to help people through grief,” Striano says. “You have the loss of the life you thought you were going to have. You have the loss of a loved one, you have the loss of a child…and we really just try to help people through that, and I’m going to be teaching people how to work with horses, so they can help people through grief, so I can create a whole Equus coaching…for lack of better word, army.”
She almost gave up on Spirit’s Promise in 2018. “I basically look at my life and say that I will never give up. I don’t give up on things,” she says. “I probably would have maybe said, if I was running something else, I would have said, ‘I got to get out of this, it’s too much work’…but because I had other living beings, I felt like I owed them this try, so I gave it one more year.” And she did.
Her daughter Jessie said that her mom started Spirit’s Promise because she loved animals. “She had one horse, named Spirit,” Jessie said. “He was her first horse ever, and she would take care of them. And that was the beginning. I really got to see my mom falling in love with being around the horses, and when I came home from school, she just kind of dove headfirst into being with the animals, and then Spirit’s Promise started.”
Spirit’s Promise has been going strong for 10 years now, having gotten its certification as a non-profit in 2011. Now, the program partners with New York State of Opportunity, DXA Studio, Long Island Equine Trail, Discover Long Island, Discover the Hamptons and MRV Group, which works with Striano’s now long-time friend Glenn Vickers II.
“You could tell when you pulled up that it’s a magical place,” Vickers says. He got to know Spirit’s Promise through one of Striano’s sisters, and his executive management development firm provides smart solutions and partnerships to a variety of industries — including now equine rehabilitation and grief therapy.
He was in the car, having just left Spirit’s Promise, where he goes there often to collaborate on programs with the Spirit’s Promise Executive Board. “I deal with a lot of organizations and just … this place is a 10-year labor of love,” Vickers said. “It’s a really warm place, very inclusive; there is a great team of volunteers. You walk onto the property and the culture that they’ve created was…they were doing something right.”
Sherry Turpin, who has volunteered at Spirit’s Promise with her husband since 2014, has felt the depth of the farm in her own life — and Striano’s impact. Turpin is now the administrative manager, and Striano’s best friend. They call once a day, and keep in touch, more than Turpin thought she would with any friend.
“When I started volunteering there, I didn’t have a lot of contact with Marisa,” Turpin said, “because we were only there one day a week. It was mostly with the people who were in charge of the volunteers at the time with the other volunteers who were there on Sunday, but whenever she would come out and she’d say hello to everyone, she thanked them for their time. She always felt that it was very, very important to make sure that she was there to thank them personally for coming and giving their time that day.”
Her son Pete is among the many people in her life who look up to her. “When she first started [Spirit’s Promise], I thought she was in over her head to be honest. She’s a strong lady, and she, you know, if she wants to put her mind to something, she’ll make it happen.”