Three Gaits’ Dena Duncan Finds Career Calling through Volunteering

In the spring of 1990, one University of Wisconsin-Madison class opened the door to a career that then-student, Dena Duncan, would enjoy for the rest of her life. The course, Rehab Psych and Special Ed 360, required students to work with individuals with disabilities through 25 hours of volunteering.

Looking to find an opportunity that would match her personal and professional interests, Duncan reached out to volunteer at an organization called Three Gaits, Inc.

Three Gaits, Inc. Dena Duncan
Dena Duncan

Three Gaits is a nonprofit whose mission is to provide activities and therapies that enhance the lives of people with physical, emotional or intellectual challenges. Riders work with horses to execute this mission and — as a result — often learn something about themselves, too. Dena grew up with horses but lost contact while away at college, so she quickly fell in love with the volunteer program and its mission.

“I still remember attending volunteer training, and the first rider I was able to walk with,” Duncan said. “It was a perfect fit — partnering my lifelong passion & hobby with my professional interests.”

In 1994, Duncan moved from her role as a volunteer to become a part-time instructor. Nineteen years later, she became the Executive Director of Three Gaits.

Duncan has always made community engagement a priority throughout her life. Whether it was volunteering at the local library because to promote literacy, or at local neighborhood events and in schools — she always made sure she was participating in activities that aligned with her passions and interests. But it was her time serving Three Gaits that had the most profound impact on her.

“I was an incredibly quiet person in high school and even when I was first attending UW-Madison, I was very quiet and reserved,” Duncan said. “Three Gaits really helped me find my voice and allowed me to be able to go out and speak in front of groups, do interviews and have confidence speaking about something that I love.”

Badger Volunteers at Three Gaits, Inc
Through Badger Volunteers, UW-Madison students assist in adaptive (therapeutic) horseback riding lessons for children, youth & adults with disabilities & special needs by grooming and tacking horses prior to and after lessons.

When asked about her favorite things about Three Gaits, Duncan said it was impossible for her to answer with just one thing. Duncan works with a diverse group of committed volunteers, some have been around horses their whole life and others are looking to try something new. Regardless, they all come together to support a common goal. The riders inspire Duncan on a daily basis with the excitement they show about learning something new and by pushing themselves toward their goals.

Duncan is a perfect example of someone who turned their passions into a career. And you might be able to too, by joining programs that you may not have tried before such as Badger Volunteers or taking a community-based learning class.

“My advice for students looking for an opportunity to share their time and talents is simple,” Duncan said. “Find something that makes you happy and share that with others.”

By Ali Baker