A love of horses and empowering youth

Roy Irwin works with a student in an undated photo. Courtesy photo

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If you’ve lived in Winters within the last 52 years, chances are you’ve met local legend, Roy Irwin. His life’s path to legendary status, however, has been anything but easy.

Born and raised in Michigan, Irwin struggled with developmental disabilities and a stutter. That, unfortunately, led to him being bullied, ridiculed and disregarded.

“Being developmentally disabled made it difficult for him as a kid. He was made fun of a lot, and didn’t have too many friends growing up,” said Roy’s brother, Steve. “An uncle suggested Roy should go to a special school where they said he’d graduate. It was a vocational school and they never did help him and was discharged after four years as ‘incapable of self-support.’”

After being notified of his incapability, Irwin started working at the Gross Point Hunt Club in Michigan as a stable boy. There, he developed his affinity for horses and their docile nature that closely mimic his own.

Irwin’s family ended up moving to Winters in 1968 after his father retired. Once settled in, he took multiple jobs to help support himself and his family.

“Roy was working several jobs,” said his brother Steve. “At First Northern, the post office and Lester Farms. While he was working at Lester Farms, he met Cheryl Filarski and bonded over their love of horses. They started talking and she unequivocally became his best friend. Then she taught him how to train horses.”

One horse, Rowdy, was particularly stubborn and had been abused earlier in life. Both sharing troubled pasts, Irwin and Rowdy bonded and began a new friendship.

“Horses accept you for who you are,” Irwin said of his experience training horses. “I worked with Rowdy and felt a connection with him. When he was off the chain, he would follow me around like a puppy dog. I showed him that not all people were bad too.”

Irwin’s ability to connect with others didn’t stop with horses. After speaking to the children at his church’s Sunday school, Irwin was invited to be a motivational speaker for elementary and middle school kids. He talked about standing up to bullies, accepting others for who they are and to not let others tell you what you’re worth is, or what you’re capable of achieving.

“Roy always felt that his lack of education always held him back,” recalled his brother, Steve. “That’s why he’s particularly anxious to talk to the kids and tell them not to waste the opportunity he wished he had. That was the motivation there. He’s always identifying with the kids that are bullied and disenfranchised.”

It’s been said that there are only two types of people in the world. Irwin’s friends, and people Irwin will introduce himself to, and then become his friends. And as the world presses on through these tumultuous times, Irwin continues to embody the compassion and acceptance that it so desperately needs. Luckily for Winters, the town’s living legend continues to be an inexhaustible source of both.

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