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MAKING NEW FRIENDS AT THE GENTLE BARN ANIMALS, KIDS LEARN FROM EACH OTHER.

Byline: CAROL ROCK Staff Writer

CANYON COUNTY -- Up Sierra Highway, just past green fields hosting home runs and enthusiastic fans, there is a place of solitude, refuge and rebirth.

From the street, the Gentle Barn looks like just another series of corrals, but Ellie Laks, Jay Weiner and their 60 rescued barnyard animals are so much more than another farm.

A quiet young man wearing an oversized basketball jersey and a stern expression stood outside the corral where miniature horse Bonzai was standing. He watched carefully, then picked up a brush from a dusty barrel. As he stroked the horse's neck, he looked up, his eyes widening in discovery. A giggle escaped his lips.

``Look,'' he shouted at the other boys from his group home, ``the horse is smiling.''

His counselor, Roxana Garnic, from the residential LeRoy Haynes Center in LaVerne, said the boys still talked about a visit they made to the Gentle Barn several months earlier.

``I can see a change in them after we get back,'' she said. ``They're all macho, tough boys, but after they come here, they think maybe they're not so bad.''

The group moved into a corral holding a two-ton blind bull named Vegan. As the boys crowded around him, Weiner warned them that Vegan's buddy, a cow named Buddha, liked to move as a team, so be ready to get out of the way. Sure enough, the black and white bovine trotted to Vegan's side, oblivious to the four 12-year-olds trying to give the bull a bear hug.

``Ooh, she hit me,'' one boy said, holding his face, which had been flicked by the cow's tail. He stepped over to the cow for a cuddle. Putting his arms around her neck, he closed his eyes.

``She is like a big teddy bear,'' he said, as the group watched.

The boys from the LeRoy Haynes Center are just one of a growing list of groups -- from the Pacific Lodge Boys' Home to LARC Ranch for the developmentally disabled, elementary schools from over the hill and students in the local ACTION program for teens in trouble -- who visit every month.

``Every single animal here has survived something horrible,'' Laks said. ``Just like the children and adults who come here for our program. We try and teach them that we may look different, but inside we're all the same. It's all about tolerance.

``They (the animals) came out on the other side of the problem,'' she continued. ``They learned to trust, to have courage and to live in the moment. We use their stories as examples for the kids.''

Laks and Weiner said that first-timers often walk onto the grounds with an invisible wall around them, put up against the outside world. They've made it their quest to break down that wall and let the child emerge.

``They've had to be these tough, rough, hardened kids to survive. Here, they get to be taken back to when they were soft and lovable,'' she said. ``They go in to brush the horse and I'll hear them telling them, `It's OK, nobody's gonna hurt you.' They aren't talking to the horse, they're talking to themselves.''

Along with the violence prevention program, the Gentle Barn also offers programs to help special needs individuals with spatial awareness and motor skills.

``The autistic kids shut out a lot of the outside world,'' Weiner said. ``After they are in with the animals, they start talking and opening up. We've had people come here with Alzheimer's that have completely shut down come alive again when they are petting the dog or holding a chicken.''

``It brings back their childhood,'' Laks said.

But the most important thing to remember is that it's not a petting zoo.

``That's just such a horrible word,'' Laks said. ``Some of our animals were rescued from petting zoos where they were abused. People come here fearing the animals because petting zoos are built around the animals getting a treat. What's the first thing they do when you go in the gate? Put food in your hand and the animals attack because that's what they've been conditioned to do.''

If there are any risks for the animals at Gentle Barn, it's that they are quickly becoming the most pampered farm animals in the county.

``Oh yeah, they love it,'' Weiner laughed. ``When we have groups four or five days a week, they get a lot of attention if they want it. When we don't have groups in the summer, they come looking. They're really happy when we start again in the fall.''

Students spend time doing various tasks around the farm such as grooming the animals, taking nature hikes and planting vegetables.

``They develop a sense of usefulness,'' Laks said. They also bring in guest speakers, including a farrier, veterinarian and a deep-tissue massage therapist who specializes in animals.

Sometimes the lessons vary from the curriculum, such as when a favorite pig died and a group arrived eager to visit with him. Laks and Weiner quickly devised an alternative plan; the boys were allowed to dig a hole and plant a tree in memory of the pig, which led to a discussion of grieving and loss.

``These kids lose family members and see death on the streets, but may never have had a chance to talk about it,'' Laks said. ``Everything we do here touches on a life skill.''

A counselor from the Pacific Lodge Boys Home wrote to Laks about their experience: ``There is more to the connection than just curiosity on both the boys' and animals' parts. There is an understanding of what it means to have a second chance. Whether you happen to walk on two feet, four hooves or merely just enjoy the sensation of watching as two completely different creatures, human and animal, learn something that books can't teach.''

The Gentle Barn is now open for the public to visit on Sundays from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Visitors are asked to make a $5 donation to help support the animals and continue offering the violence prevention programs. For information on the animals or sponsoring the visiting groups, visit their Web site at www.gentlebarn.org

carol.rock(at)dailynews.com

(661) 257-5252

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6 photos

Photo:

(1 -- 2 -- color) Kaylee, an Australian cattle dog, and a horse are visited by at-risk kids at the Gentle Barn.

(3 -- 6) At top left, Jay Weiner, owner of the Gentle Barn, introduces Vegan, a rescued 1,500-pound blind cow, to visiting at-risk youths. Above left, Kaylee, an Australian cattle dog, enjoys the attention of young visitors. At top right, Ellie Laks, an owner and counselor at the Gentle Barn, high-fives a visitor. Above right, an at-risk youth gets to know a horse.

John Lazar/Staff Photographer
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Publication:Daily News (Los Angeles, CA)
Date:Oct 1, 2006
Words:1133
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