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.”
Piketon High School FFA
Agriculture education teacher Kristen Campbell loves teaching high schoolers about agriculture and veterinary science. Her passion is clearly infectious – which explains why one in five Piketon High School students participated in Agriculture classes last year.
Under Campbell’s watchful eye, students learn to care for all kinds of animals, including chickens, rabbits, goats, sheep, horses, miniature pigs, dogs, cats and yes – even a bearded dragon. “The more students learn about these animals, the better care they provide and the deeper they understand how important animals are to their livelihood,” she says.
While the class curriculum aims to give students a solid grounding in animal husbandry, students also benefit from the connections formed with the classroom animals. “The animals don’t judge,” Campbell explains, “they just provide love and support.”
For troubled teens, Campbell’ Agriculture classes can become a refuge against life’s trials, disappointments and tragedies. She recalls how one young student, struggling after the death of sibling, found solace in the classroom rabbit. Then there’s the high schooler who came from a verbally abusive home.
“She absolutely fell in love with one of our little chicks,” Campbell recalls. “Every time she held it, her face lit up with a big smile like they were meant to be together.” Seeing a connection that shouldn’t be broken, Kristen arranged for the student to care for the chick at her grandparents’ home.
Piketon’s Agriculture students already benefit greatly from their animal education coursework, but their intrepid teacher has her sights set on creating a more comprehensive learning environment. Currently, larger animals are brought in for a day, but Kristen aims to give her teens more in-depth interactions and responsibilities. She’s currently raising funds to install a small livestock barn at the high school, enabling student to gain more hands-on experience with daily animal care.
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.”
Broome County 4-H
Fifteen-year-old Reanna is a big proponent of 4-H, America’s largest youth development organization. She credits the program for developing her love of animals, while also honing her public speaking and leadership skills.
“The education you gain in this program can’t be learned anywhere else,” she insists. “4-H changed my life for the better and I truly believe I would not be the person I am today without 4-H and agriculture.”
Brian Aukema, associate director of agriculture for Broome County’s Cooperative Extension service, concurs with Reanna’s enthusiasm. That’s why he’s working to start a Livestock Rodeo, an event that will teach local youth about animal care, nutrition, showmanship, and grooming.
“Less than 2% of our population are directly involved in livestock production and farming, but one in ten jobs deal with agriculture,” he explains. “That’s why it is very important for organizations like 4-H to thrive. It provides youth the opportunity to develop that passion to feed the world.”
Brian hopes the Livestock Rodeo will inspire more youth to join the program. “4-H has a special meaning for everyone, but for all of us, it’s a place to explore our interests and build our own identity,” he maintains. “It’s a supportive community to help youth take on new challenges and reach their full potential. Working together, youth and adults find they can create a powerful change in the world around them, help local communities thrive, and develop their own spark.”
For Reanna, that spark started as a five-year-old showing a few bunnies and grew into a desire to study agriculture in college. “I had no idea that joining 4-H would have the impact on my life that it does and would help me grow in so many ways,” she says. “Now, there is nothing I love more than advocating for the livestock industry. 4-H is truly life-changing.”
Mount Pleasant FFA
Katie Cauthen has always had a deep bond with animal agriculture, one that stretches back to her days as an FFA member at Mt. Pleasant High School (MPHS) in North Carolina. Today, she shares that zeal with the next generation of MPHS students, as one of the school’s agriculture teachers.
“I have a passion for animal agriculture, and seeing that passion ignite in my students is one of the greatest feelings one can have,” she says.
The school-owned livestock barn and pasture facilities aid her on that quest. They enable students to gain hands-on experience with all aspects of animal nutrition and care. Moreover, the recently added FFA livestock show team exclusively exhibiting animals bred and raised on the school campus. This provides one more element of learning – and fun – to the MPHS ag program.
“Our animal science program is built on hard work, determination, a passion for animals, and empathy towards all living things,” she emphasizes. Along the way, students build communication and leadership skills, all while developing bonds with their show team animals.
“There is no denying the incredible connection that forms between people and animals,” Katie adds. “Working with animals can drive an individual to act with determination, live every day with a more positive outlook, and walk through life with empathy towards others.”
John and Amy Henderson started Legacy Farmstead with a mission to help veterans and first responders battling post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD) and chronic stress. Aided by their team of therapy horses, along with a barnyard full of goats, cows, chickens, pigs and cats, the couple helps families reconnect and heal through their unique blend of equine therapy and farm life.
“PTSD not only affects the veteran or first responder that experienced it, but it truly affects the entire family,” John explains. “Legacy Farmstead is a place for individuals and families to retreat and get away from their troubles.”
The non-profit’s idyllic setting provides the perfect atmosphere for renewal. In addition to its caring team, Amy insists it’s the therapy horses that are the true heroes. The herd, all abused or abandoned by previous owners, have a magical way of connecting with Legacy visitors. One family, who had lost their two teenage children in a car accident, stands out.
“The mother would hardly talk to anyone or go anywhere,” Amy recalls. Desperate for help, her family heard about Legacy and came out for a weekend. She arrived quiet, sullen and terrified of animals, but Chief, a therapy horse with a difficult past, helped her transform. “By the end of the weekend, she wanted to be a part of everything,” Amy continues. “We’ve never experienced something so massive before.”
Gateway to the Great Outdoors
A lifelong outdoorsman, Nadav Sprague wanted to share his love for nature, animals, and the great outdoors with students from low-income families. That desire prompted him to launch Gateway to the Great Outdoors (GGO) while still a student at Washington University.
Five years later, the program he built partners with public schools in Chicago, Illinois, and St. Louis, Missouri, to provide animal, outdoor, and STEAM (science, technology, engineering, the arts, and mathematics) education to underserved students. GGO’s curriculum combines hands-on, inquiry-based classroom instruction and nature-based outings and overnight trips, with year-round mentorship from university students.
Before participating in GGO, 78% of students indicated that they had not been to a park in a year or more. Nadav’s non-profit works to give those children the opportunity to experience the wonders of nature, including up-close encounters with wildlife.
Through field trips and overnight camping outings, students gain a new appreciation for animals and the environment. “We’re educating and inspiring the next generation of animal stewards and advocates,” Nadav says, “… and helping students make connections between themselves, the environment, and wildlife.”
Carl E. Dahl House
Situated on a 40-acre hilltop in Athol, Massachusetts, the Carl E. Dahl House represents a departure from traditional approaches to substance abuse recovery. Here, residents learn to care for livestock and reconnect with the earth, while also receiving clinical support and recovery education.
Patients still receive individual counseling, group counseling and develop individual treatment plans, just as they would in another program. However, instead of sitting in classrooms or on therapists’ couches, these sessions happen in barns and pastures. As a result, the unique therapeutic farming program facilitates healing in a setting that feels more like a large family than a sterile clinic-based recovery program.
“The animals on the farm are the secret ingredient in our equation,” says Katie Follett, the therapeutic farm coordinator for the Dahl House. “Our animals don’t judge. They make no assumptions and have no interest in the mistakes a person has made in the past. Instead, they seek companionship and love.”
Purpose is built into every day, as residents combine counseling sessions with daily farm responsibilities. Farm staff provides all the necessary training and support, enabling clients to go to bed each night with a sense of accomplishment.
“Tasks that at first look like chores such as feeding, watering, grooming, and walking soon become expressions of empathy and compassion for another living being,” Katie explains. “Our animals play a vital role in helping our patients rediscover their self-worth as together they learn how to depend on each other.”
Like any working farm, at the Dahl House there are no days off. “It’s great practice for a person in recovery,” Katie insists. “Just as the farm and animals need care in rain, snow, or blistering heat, people in recovery must work their program every day, no matter what.”
Mount Pleasant FFA
The Mount Pleasant FFA program has a rich history, providing students with hands-on experiences caring for livestock and learning critical farm management practices. Along with way, students build leadership and communications skills, and become advocates for animal agriculture.
Former student Elisabeth Swinson says the program helped her uncover her true passion for animals. “I always knew I wanted to be a veterinarian, but I’d never actually been around animals,” she explains. Now a freshman at North Carolina State University, Elisabeth says her time with MP FFA, caring for the school’s goats, sheep and cattle, solidified her career choice.
Her sentiments are echoed by other students enrolled in the program. Recent graduate Brianna Colosi credits the program with sharpening her study habits, strengthening her team-building skills, and providing countless leadership opportunities.
Now, thanks to Nutrena’s Feed it Forward grant, the students at Mount Pleasant are updating pasture fencing, enabling them to implement a rotational pasture grazing system that will serve as model for the community. The group plans to partner with local county extension agents to hold monthly Small Ruminant Producers meetings, where students can demonstrate pasture rotation plans, forage management, and sheep and goat handling.
“Not every school program is lucky enough to have the opportunity to walk outside their classroom and see real-world examples of what they’re learning,” says Shelby Mabe, the current president of the FFA chapter. “At Mount Pleasant, the animal science program and the FFA chapter work together to help students grow and find their passions.”
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.”
Brackett Town Farms
Nichole Toney insists it all started when she and husband Chad inherited a bit of family property in North Carolina. A few chickens and a dog quickly followed. Then things snowballed.
“We all love animals,” she says with smile. “But the problem is we all love different animals.” At first, the family simply joked about starting a petting zoo, but as time went on the idea took hold. A visit to a petting farm in Ohio sealed the deal. Today, Brackett Town Farms serves as a free, therapeutic petting farm focused on helping those with special needs, grief and mental health issues.
“Animals have the amazing power to heal the heart and create a special connection,” Nichole explains. At Brackett Town Farms, those connections happen as visitors learn about the farm’s animals through educational, hands-on, small-group tours and summer volunteer work programs.
Caring for all the farm’s 80 animals means long hours, but Nichole wouldn’t have it any other way. “This is my calling,” she emphasizes. “I get to see children’s joy at learning about new animals and developmentally disabled adults laugh while they play fetch with our farm dog.”
Of course, the animals who call Brackett Town Farms home bask in all that attention, save for a grumpy hedgehog and a few alpacas. The pigs relish belly scratches, the goats compete for head pats and the miniature donkeys are always underfoot, trying to get a few cuddles, too. Little wonder that amidst all that love, Nicole has witnessed plenty of personal breakthroughs.
She recalls one developmentally disabled woman who found her voice at the farm. “She visited with each of the animals and had a wonderful time,” Nichole remembers. During her time at the farm, she even spoke several complete sentences – something her caregivers had been working on for nearly a year. It turns out, all she needed was few Brackett Town animals to serve as conversation partners.