Everyone needs a place to have fun. That simple statement is the vision behind Jamie’s Ranch, a place where all ages and abilities come to enjoy a day of pony rides, petting zoo animals and a wide variety of other inclusive activities.
Sheri Mitzel remembers the first time she truly understood the need for Jamie’s Ranch. She and her husband Roger hosted an end-of-the-year party for their daughter Jamie’s special-needs classmates and their families. For many of the children, it was the first party they had been invited to attend.
One young girl made a big impression. She desperately wanted to ride a horse but was nearly paralyzed by fear. With patience and encouragement, Roger coaxed the girl onto a horse. “Before it was all over, we couldn’t get her off,” Sheri recalls. A week later, the girl’s teacher called with an update. The young student was applying that same newfound courage to other aspects of her life.
“It was transformational,” Sheri explains, noting that in the ensuing years, she has received many similar calls. “I really believe that animals are an equalizer for these children; they bring some balance back into their life.” Long-time volunteer Francie Anderson agrees: “Animals don’t discriminate. They’re just happy with the attention.”
While the first groups to visit were Jamie’s classmates, Sheri and Roger could see how much the children thrived in the safe, inclusive environment. After their daughter’s death from Batten disease, a rare neurodegenerative disorder, the Mitzels dreamed of bringing the experience to more children. Eight years later, they formally launched Jamie’s Ranch.
“When we were raising Jamie, it was so hard to find different things for her to do – especially activities we could do as an entire family,” Sheri remembers. “I think that’s one of the things we do really well at Jamie’s Ranch. The whole family can come, even older siblings, and they all have fun.”
The Ranch isn’t just for kids. Because Jamie’s Ranch appeals to all ages, Sheri estimates half of their visitors are special-needs adults. “It’s easy to forget as they get older, they still crave new experiences,” she explains, noting that some of their adult guests rarely get to spend time outside. Like the youngsters, these older visitors get great joy riding horses, feeding animals and participating in all the Ranch has to offer.
“It’s just amazing when you see what animals can do,” Sheri concludes. “The impact our animals have is nothing short of miraculous.”