Whispering Acres Tails and Treasures
Nyema has autism spectrum disorder. She has difficulty with social interactions, focusing and staying on task. But when she’s with Alice – her favorite therapy horse – those challenges seem a little less daunting.
“She’s learned to get her horse, groom her, saddle and bridle her, ride her and then do everything in reverse,” says Nyema’s mom. “Some days are better than others, but she always gets the job done, because she knows that is what is required to ride.”
For Jill Kuzelka, founder of Whispering Acres, stories like Nyema’s are exactly why she started the Nebraska-based non-profit. “We’re a safe place for people to work on challenges, often in a way that doesn’t seem like work,” she explains.
The non-profit offers something for everyone, from its much-loved petting zoo – complete with pygmy goats, chickens, peacocks and donkeys – to the High Hopes Equine Assisted Learning Center, which empowers children and adults with physical, mental, emotional and social challenges to create more active, healthy and fulfilling lives.
“Helping people live their best lives is the ultimate goal for me,” Kuzelka says. The animals at Whispering Acres seem to share her commitment. Take Duke, a 12-year-old Paint. Jill recalls an especially memorable first visit for one young, non-verbal client, who didn’t want to get out of the car. “Duke stuck his head in the car window, and they’ve had a great relationship ever since,” she says. “Now even on his bad days, he still wants to pet Duke.”
Sixteen-year-old Candace loves Purpose Farm, a place where she can set her hurt aside and feel the unconditional love of animals. She says being at the farm makes her happy and helps her release anxiety and stress. That’s exactly what Founder Sandra Seabrook envisioned when she launched the unique mentorship program 14 years ago.
At Purpose Farm, youth with emotional issues stemming from neglect, abuse, bullying, and similar challenges connect with the farm’s animal and human mentors. As they assist with chores and bond with the animals, the children find purpose, experience love, build confidence and gain empathy.
“Most of our animals come from a neglected and abused background, too,” Sandra explains. “These animals, once lonely, hurting, and looking for affection and a friend, are now cared for by children who are often in the same position.”
It’s a powerful combination, and one that volunteer Lynn Fofi says gives the participating youth confidence, skills, and experiences that will support them throughout their lives. “Purpose Farm is working to improve the lives of so many kids that wouldn’t otherwise know that life is good,” she explains. “Simply by giving them opportunities to love and care for animals, they see how they can make a difference in the world.”
Cheryl Kaletka started Fellinlove Farm for her daughters, who both have serious health issues. She wanted a place where they could learn about work and responsibility, practice socialization and just have fun. As she watched her daughters thrive, and as the Fellinlove Farm animal community grew, the Kaletka family decided to share their unique farm setting with others.
“Opening the farm to our volunteers and guests has allowed us to share the intense joy experienced from connecting with these amazing, diverse creatures,” Cheryl explains. Visitors have a chance to meet pigs, goats, cows, horses, donkeys, llamas, dogs, cats, bunnies and more.
Make no mistake, this is no ordinary petting zoo. Drawing on her experience as an early childhood special education professor and teacher, Cheryl created educational programs that allow guests of all ages and needs to enjoy the farm and its many animals. By far, the most popular is the farm’s adaptive field trip program.
In devising the program, Cheryl worked to make the farm and its many animals accessible to all. For those who struggle with anxiety in new environments, Fellinlove Farm offers an interactive virtual tour, enabling guests to see a “preview” before their planned visit. Wheelchair-friendly paths open the farm to guests with mobility issues. Plus, each adaptive field trip is tailored to the group’s unique needs, taking into account preferred learning styles, impairments, emotional and behavioral concerns, and more.
Cheryl’s commitment to inclusivity, aided by the farm’s 150 animal ambassadors, has made Fellinlove Farm a popular destination for school groups, families, and senior care facilities throughout western Michigan. “Through hands-on interactions with our gentle animals, we provide dynamic experiences for people of all ages and abilities,” she explains. “These intimate, individualized animal-human connections promote social, physical, mental and emotional benefits – and they’re a whole lot of fun, too.”
BIG Heart Ranch
Thirteen years ago, Suzi Landolphi set out to create a program that would support animals and humans. BIG Heart Ranch (BHR) is the result of her efforts – a place to help disadvantaged children and families recover from trauma, using therapeutic interactions with rescued animals. Along the way, the organization has rescued and rehabilitated dozens of chickens, bunnies, goats, pigs, horses, donkeys, and even a couple of alpacas.
Personal experience served as her inspiration, as Suzie discovered working with horses helped her overcome her own childhood trauma. She became a licensed psychotherapist and soon put her training to work, pairing rescued horses with humans struggling with addition and other mental health issues.
“Animals are non-judgmental and relate to all, regardless of mental health diagnoses, and physical, emotional and intellectual abilities,” she explains, noting that participants with the most challenges often experience the greatest sense of wellbeing at BHR.
The ranch’s certified facilitators and licensed clinicians use experiential learning and therapy models to help clients practice kindness, honesty and integrity. Participants start by interacting with the farm’s horses and other animals, then learn to transfer those qualities to their human relationships.
But it’s not just the humans who find healing at BHR. “Many of our animals were neglected and abused,” Suzie explains. “At BHR, they live in a calm, caring environment where the caretakers help the animals regain trust. As their emotional health improves, so does their physical wellbeing.”
Road to Independence
Success takes on many forms. For the differently abled clients served by Road to Independence, it might be leading a donkey through an obstacle course, cleaning out an animal stall, or maybe just getting up the nerve to enter the barn.
“Who would have thought that stacking wood could be a team-building activity, or that mastery of a pitch fork could bring self-confidence?” asks Margaret Coulter, director and founder of Road to Independence, a New Hampshire-based pre-vocational training program for individuals with mental and physical challenges.
Donkeys are a big part of the program, animals known for their cautious demeanor. “While horses might run, donkeys are more apt to choose to stand and not move,” Margaret explains, noting their reputation for stubbornness. “To work with the donkeys, our participants have to establish a relationship with the animals based on trust.”
Clients learn to halter, lead and care for the group’s nine donkeys. Along the way, they also build critical life skills, including communication, team work and the ability to follow directions. For many participants, working at Road to Independence may be the first time they’ve been in charge of anything. “If they’re leading the donkey, they are making the decisions, directing the donkey where to go,” Margaret notes. “On the outside, it may look like we are just visiting with donkeys, but often the interactions for our participants are life changing.”
The New Hampshire-based non-profit regularly takes its clients and donkeys on the road, visiting area senior care facilities, attending the local farmer’s market, walking in numerous parades and participating in donkey shows. In these community settings, the clients are the experts, showcasing their skills and knowledge.
“There are few other avenues in the community where individuals with developmental disabilities can actively participate on an equal footing with their able-bodied community members,” Margaret points out. But the best part, she says: “Witnessing the joy on a participant’s face when the task at hand – however simple or complex – is completed to the best ability possible.”