"He was the most unusual looking horse I'd ever seen. He looked like an overgrown Dalmatian. A white horse with black polka dots. And I was just mesmerized by his eyes."
What she didn't know at the time was that those eyes were blind. What she also didn't know was that this leopard Appaloosa would inspire her so much that she would one day write a book about him.
Jennifer met Joey at Hope Reins, a sprawling ranch on the gently sloping hills of North Raleigh, where she had come to volunteer. Founded in 2010, Hope Reins is a counseling ministry that pairs children who are hurting with horses that've been rescued.
"We serve kids ages 5 to 18 that are going through a life crisis," says Hope Reins Founder and CEO Kim Tschirret. "They've experienced some sort of trauma, abuse. Maybe they're living in foster care or a group home. And what we do is we pair them with horses that have been rescued from similar circumstances. We help them find hope and healing in the relationship that they build together."
That's where Joey comes in. A well-decorated champion jumper with Olympic potential, Joey was tragically sidelined by injury and later abandoned and left for dead.
"So we got a phone call from the US Equine Rescue League in Virginia," says Tschirret, "and they said we've got this beautiful horse, he used to be a competitor. He's an Appaloosa. And by the way, he's blind."
So what do you do with a blind, half-dead horse? Well, if you're Kim Tschirret, you take him in sight unseen.
"And the first time we laid eyes on him it was a goose-bump moment. We just knew he was very, very special. Joey had a regal quality about him, and a gentleness that I really haven't seen in many horses."
Among the children who got to bond with Joey at Hope Reins was Alyssa Hakim, who, at age five, found it difficult to speak after a trauma early in her life. But after some time, the little girl who couldn't speak found her voice -- with the help of a horse who couldn't see.
"I think Joey could understand how I was feeling, and I think I could understand how Joey was feeling," Alyssa said.
"It was like she was in a turtle shell," says Alyssa's mom Cindee Hakim, who adopted her at age two. "So, when she went to Hope Reins it was like a beam just started shining out of her and I had never seen that in her before!"
And that beam keeps on shining. In fact, when Jennifer Bleakley's new book "JOEY" officially went on sale this month, the now 12-year-old Alyssa Hakim was one of the guest speakers at the book launch party!
There are plenty of other Joey stories to tell. But sadly, the proud competitor's life came to an end in 2014 after he developed a painful intestinal disorder.
And yet, says author Jennifer Bleakley, he continues to inspire: "Joey had a purpose. His life had a purpose. And how encouraging that is, that each one of us has a purpose in this life and there is hope. Joey led people to see hope."
Kim Tschirret agrees. "We hope the lasting impact is going to be people understanding that even when you're in a really dark place that there is a God that loves them and there's always hope, and that God can redeem every story."