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Claire Tierney smiled warmly at the memory of the 6-year-old girl she met as a volunteer at the Chasing Rainbows Therapeutic Equine Facility.

About a year ago, the two were playing a game when the child threw a ball. The Lemoyne teenager retrieved the ball for the little girl who is hard of hearing.

“She told me ‘You’re the sun to me. …You’re so nice to me,” recalled Tierney, 17, a senior at Cedar Cliff High School. “I will also hold onto that.

“Ever since I was young, I’ve loved animals,” said Tierney who started horseback riding as a young girl learning the pastime through an older sister who rode competitively. Six days a week, Tierney visits a stable outside Enola where she rides her horse Hannah, a thoroughbred with the attitude of a diva.

Together they have competed successfully in show jumping and dressage, an equestrian sport where horse and rider perform from memory a series of predetermined movements. The Chasing Rainbows facility is located near the stable and was looking for volunteers to help with a therapeutic riding program. Tierney signed up in part to fill the community service requirement of being a National Honor Society member.

“The kids are just so innocent and sweet,” Tierney said. “It’s just a nice atmosphere. Everyone just seems to be grateful.”

Sometimes she would lead the horse carrying a child age 5 to 9 with a disability. Other times, Tierney would walk beside the animal and help to keep the rider steady on the saddle. For her, horseback riding is a stress reliever – a way to decompress from a rigorous academic schedule and a busy life.

“Her academic achievements are quite outstanding,” said Jessie Alexander-Grey, a guidance counselor at Cedar Cliff. “By the time she graduates, Claire will have completed five advanced placement and six honors courses. She is ranked number four in a class of 291 students.”

This hard work may earn Tierney an early decision to Tufts University near Boston where she plans to study chemical engineering. Her original plan was to pursue a career in the music industry.

“I have been playing piano since I have been five,” Tierney said. She was influenced by her two older sisters and used to tag along to their lessons.

Tierney used to volunteer at the Homeland Center, a personal care home and skilled nursing facility in Harrisburg. There she played songs and classical pieces from the 1920s, 30s and 40s during dinner time.

One time a man in a wheelchair came up to thank her for playing “Georgia on My Mind,” a tune made famous by Ray Charles. “He said he liked to sing that tune with his wife,” Tierney said. “I was always in a really good mood after that.” She believes her playing and singing was an up-lift for the older folks.

Tierney successfully auditioned for the Cedar Cliff Octet, a highly selective a cappella ensemble. She was also selected for the PMFA County Chorus and the school’s Chamber Singers ensemble. A pianist for the Wind Ensemble and Chorus, Tierney has performed in every high school musical since her freshmen year at Cedar Cliff.

But she is not just a follower or group member. Tierney has been in charge. She was selected last year for the Junior Leadership Program offered through the West Shore Chamber of Commerce. Skills that she learned through that program prepared her for a role on the finance committee of Lead the Way 5k Community Fun/Walk that raised scholarship money for other youths eligible for the leadership program.

The students she met during the leadership program “were complete replicas of me”, Tierney said. They were all busy hard-working kids with talent, ambition and an eye to the future.

Their goal was to expand and develop an already existing 5k run into a larger event held at Messiah College in May 2016. There was a point where the revamped event was not getting the anticipated draw of runners and walkers.

“We all stepped up and in one week got a lot of people to sign up,” Tierney recalled. She estimated the crowd of participants was around 100. “I can see myself being in charge.”

The original plan to go with music changed over to math and science after Tierney took a chemistry class in her junior year. She regards it as her favorite of her high school career. Now she wants to study chemical engineering and maybe get into a field related to environmental science and green renewable energy.

“My senior year is really great to feel all my hard work building up and applying to college and looking towards the future,” Tierney said. “But it’s also kind of sad to leave things behind.”

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News Reporter

History and education reporter for The Sentinel.