Disabled children and their families are being charged for the first time in almost 40 years to use the services of Pegasus Riding for the Disabled due to a financial crisis gripping the much-loved Canberra organisation.
Some volunteers with Pegasus feel so strongly about ensuring children do not miss out on riding that they are digging into their own pockets to pay for the fees, up to $740 a year.
But Pegasus executive director Margaret Morton said the introduction of the fees and a run of donations since its financial plight was made public only meant Pegasus was now likely to close in September, rather than at the end of June. The donations included just over $22,000 handed over on Friday by Niki van Buuren.
The money was originally raised to send Ms van Buuren to the World Para-Equestrian Carriage Driving Championships in Holland last August. However, she had a car accident in June last year and was unable to make the competition.
Ms van Buuren, who was severely burnt in the 2003 bushfires, rode with Pegasus as part of her recovery.
''They did so much for me that I wanted to give something back,'' she said. ''There's nothing else in Canberra that offers the same kind of service and the same kind of benefits. For a lot of kids it's the highlight of their week. It does so much for them, not just physical skills, but also socially and mental health and emotional health as well.''
Ms Morton has asked the ACT government to increase its annual funding to Pegasus from $230,000 to $500,000 for at least four years to stave off the closure.
She has blamed dwindling donations for Pegasus' plight.
''We are in competition with large centralised national charities. They have marketing machines which are able to do ads, radio, TV and we're out the back of Holt and we don't have the resources to live, let along market,'' she said.
A spokesman for Children and Young People Minister Joy Burch said officers from the Community Services Directorate met Ms Morton this week to start the process of a financial audit of Pegasus.
''The financial assessment will focus on Pegasus' governance arrangements, current and projected financial position, current and alternative business models and how these all could interact within an NDIS [National Disability Insurance Scheme] environment from 2016,'' a statement read. ''Pegasus will be involved throughout the entire process and the report will be provided to both Pegasus and the ACT government. The engagement is expect to be completed in March. Any additional funding on top of the existing service funding agreement of $230,000 per annum will be subject to the outcomes of this work, and the ACT government budget process.''
Pegasus began in 1975. It now helps 80 families and has another 100 on a waiting list.
Ms Morton said it had been a difficult decision to introduce the fees - $20 a ride for a disabled rider, which could add up to $740 a year.
Three families said they could not afford the fees. Two volunteers paid for the children they looked after.
A member of the public offered to pay for the third child but the family declined the offer. Pegasus has also begun charging abled-riders between $45 and $70 per ride.