Blindfolded diners at Bourbon Bayou Kitchen

Blindfolded diners at Bourbon Bayou Kitchen

Have you ever been interested in having a blind date with food? The surprise isn’t your date—it’s the food itself.

Loudoun Therapeutic Riding Foundation is set to host a special fundraising event where diners will be blindfolded in low-light conditions while eating a menu of fine cuisine. 

The experience is meant to excite foodies. By taking away eyesight, the senses of smell, texture, and taste are heightened. But, more importantly, it will engage diners in a form of experiential empathy that raises awareness and funding for the work of LTR.

“This event will give [diners] a small window into what it feels like to have a disability and to experience first-hand some of the challenges our students contend with daily,” Foundation Executive Director Paul Shane said.

Loudoun Therapeutic Riding opened in 1974 as Virginia’s first therapeutic riding center. It provides horse-assisted services that encourage and empower those of all ages with physical, cognitive, and learning disabilities.

LTR offers programs including as therapeutic riding and carriage driving, physical therapy (“using Hippotherapy—the medical movement of the horse”), and horse-powered learning (unmounted sessions that focus on building reading and verbal skills through a horse lens). 

The programs benefit a wide range of people including veterans, seniors, and kids and adults who experience physical or cognitive challenges. One subset of that scope is their students who experience partial vision loss caused by Cerebral Palsy or complete blindness.

Over the past few months, LTR hosted one kick-off event and two preview events at restaurants around Washington, DC, and Loudoun County. One more preview event with a blindfolded hors d’oeuvre and wine tasting will be held Sept. 7 at Magnolias at the Mill in Purcellville.

The main fundraising event will take place on Oct. 13 at Bourbon Bayou Kitchen in Ashburn. Although the exact menu will remain top secret, diners can trust their meal will be of high quality.

Bourbon Bayou Kitchen’s Executive Chef Jazmin West, and Christine Ha, a blind chef, restauranteur, and “Master Chef” season 3 winner will collaborate to prepare the menu. All of the items are intended to be easy to eat in the dark and maximize texture, scent, and flavor.

Ha is not the event’s only notable guest. Partially blind pianist and “American Idol” season 8 contestant Scott MacIntyre will be performing. Blind radio presenter, film critic, and YouTuber Tommy Edison will be emceeing. 

Miss Virginia 2022, Victoria Chuah, also will be making an appearance. Chuah’s cause for the Miss America pageant is 4A: Awareness & Advocacy for Adults with Autism. She also is an honorary board member of LTR. Her support for the foundation hits close to home since her brother, who has autism, is a student at LTR. 

Tickets for the Dining in the Dark event are $300 to $400, and LTRF is still looking for partners to help sponsor the event.

Why the steep price tag?

“I would love to say that the money generated from this event would fund some amazing project like building an Equestrian Education Center,” said Paul Shane. “But the stark reality is that we are facing hard times, like every other nonprofit out there, and every dime raised for this event will go to paying for the current operations of LTR.”

The lack of sponsorships and the impacts of inflation are the biggest challenges facing LTR. It is difficult for LTR to financially sustain their herd of 12 therapy horses, resources for their volunteers and staff, scholarships for their students, and the upkeep of their equestrian center.

In August 2021, LTR moved its operations from its 30-year residence in Morven Park near Leesburg to what its hopes to be LTR’s forever home: a space along Berlin Turnpike near Lovettsville.

In that same month, LTR announced it was searching for a new executive director to replace Susan Koehler who led the foundation from 2019 through the bulk of the pandemic.    

Shane joined as the new executive director in December. Originally from rural New York, he joined the U.S. Air Force at 23 and was stationed in California. He was later discharged as a disabled veteran because of injuries sustained in the line of duty as a law enforcement officer.

Since then, he has committed his life to other forms of service. He completed three terms of national service for AmeriCorps State & Local and Volunteers in Service to America (VISTA).

In total, Shane has spent 25 years in the nonprofit sector and has helped seven nonprofit organizations emerge from bankruptcy to long-term sustainability. He hopes to use his experience with fundraising, and fascination with the powerful bond between humans and animals, to help sustain the quality of LTR’s impactful services to Loudoun’s disabled community.

“We are struggling like everyone else, but what sets us apart is that, in good times and in bad, our horses still have to eat. In lean times, I cannot say to a horse, ‘Hey buddy, can you take a break from eating for a month so we can catch up on the bills?’”

“There are so many reasons out there to frown. We are looking forward to creating an avenue for community members to help disabled individuals and being the sanctuary to help our students weather this economic storm with a smile.”


Loudoun Therapeutic Riding Foundation’s final, free preview event for Dining in the Dark will take place on Sept. 7 at Magnolias at the Mill in Purcellville.

To learn more information or purchase tickets to the main Dining in the Dark event on October 13, go to dininginthedark.net. To inquire about sponsoring the event or LTR, email info@ltrf.org or call 703-771-2689.

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