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.”