Kevin Cookman and Tom Welborn Krannert executive education alumni Kevin Cookman (left) and Tom Welborn (right) traveled to Kyrgyzstan in summer 2015 as part of an ongoing business plan to establish a horse therapy ranch for orphaned children in Central Asia. (Photo provided)

Fulfilling Lives

Alumni uplift orphans through horse therapy ranches in Central Asia

Most anyone’s idea of a “full life” might include economic opportunities and a stable home. For about 6,000 orphans in Kyrgyzstan, many with special needs and little education, that life is nearly impossible.

Kevin Cookman (EMBA ’00) wants to change that. “There are 16 million kids who never get adopted in the developing world,” he says. “They end up ‘graduated orphans’ on the street with a life expectancy of about 26 for a boy and 24 for a girl.”

An adoptive parent himself, Cookman turned from a computer entrepreneur with a thriving business in China to a full-time advocate for the homeless. Now the executive director of a homeless remediation center in Racine, Wisconsin, he traveled to Kyrgyzstan this summer to get A Full Life Inc. off the ground. That nonprofit is creating transition foster homes to help orphans develop necessary life skills.

Horse Sense

Understanding the lay of the land is critical in overcoming challenges of a starting a business overseas. Cookman says the mission of A Full Life is not to do the work but create the models that larger charities can use. In his first work in Central Asia, he partnered with Teen Challenge International to help able-bodied children.

Children with disabilities face even longer odds of reaching their dreams. “There’s no physical or occupational therapy over there,” Cookman says. “In fact, physical therapists didn’t even exist as a job category in the former Soviet Union.”

Kyrgyzstan does have a large horse culture. This presented Cookman with a twofold opportunity. “Horse therapy is amazing for children with disabilities,” he says. “Riding a horse moves the same core muscles similar to the exercise they would get from walking, running or swimming. The horse simply does it for them.”

There is a second benefit for children who are not typically valued. “To see them riding a horse can help shift perspectives in the culture,” he says.

Cookman met a well-connected man in the country, the director of the National Children’s Hospital, who happens to be a big horseman himself. “We were trying to get his hospital some equipment through one of our sponsors, and when he realized our mission all he wanted to talk about was horse therapy,” says Cookman, who now hopes a five-year plan to establish a horse therapy ranch can be reduced to three years.

Krannert Input

Cookman earned his first Purdue diploma (a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering in 1984), and then entered the Krannert Executive Education Program while working overseas. He returned to Krannert last year for assistance with the Full Life business plan.

For their final module in the IMM Global EMBA program, five master’s students, led by Tom Welborn (IMM ’13), developed a sustainable business model for a horse therapy ranch overseas.

"I got to work with an outstanding international team of peers: Ankur Handa, Peter Kurta, Klause Plenge and Daniel Wiemer," Welborn says. "We applied all of the skills we acquired during the IMM program toward something we saw as providing hope to children who are in desperate need of it."

With input from a similar facility in Wisconsin, the group scaled up the operation and examined funding sources outside the United States.

A 20-year U.S. Marine Corps veteran, Welborn stayed on with the project, accompanying Cookman to Kyrgyzstan this summer. “Having traveled the world, there was no culture shock going there,” Welborn says. “My background helps me quickly meet and flex with any culture so I can operate within it.”

Cookman is more than pleased with the Krannert team’s involvement. “They knew this was something that was going to affect lives, not just make someone a little more money,” he says. “Their depth of research on the country and the conditions there and what things cost was just wonderful.”