"Do you know it's impossible to hug a cow and have a bad day at the same time?" That's what Ellie Laks, founder of The Gentle Barn Foundation, tells visitors to her six-acre barnyard in Santa Clarita, California.
The nonprofit organization is a sanctuary for animals. "We rescue severely abused and neglected animals that no one else wants," says Laks. "We bring them in, and we rehabilitate them. And once they're healed and happy, they stay here for the rest of their lives and then they help us heal abused and neglected children."
Laks describes The Gentle Barn as one "giant storybook." The Gentle Barn has 170 animals, from horses and donkeys to sheep and goats to turkeys and pigs. Each animal has its own story of abuse and, thanks to Laks, healing. She believes the animals' stories can help children who also suffer from abuse and neglect. "There's an animal here that mirrors every single solitary person's story. Whatever a person's gone through, there's an animal that's gone through it as well here at The Gentle Barn," says Laks. "When you can see that that animal has learned to trust and ended up with a good life and gotten everything that you dream of, then that animal is then inspiration for that child to know that he can make it, too."
That lesson is something Laks learned at an early age. "When I was a kid I felt pretty lonely," she says. "And it was always animals that were my teachers, healers, best friends." Laks says animals taught her she had worth and value.
The Gentle Barn gives people a unique opportunity to get up close and personal with the animals. "People can come hug the cows. They can feed the horses. They can give pigs tummy rubs, cuddle with the turkeys, see the sheep and goats," says Laks. "I want them to learn a little bit about how we started and what we do here, with our programs, the special-needs kids and the spirit of how we heal animals. I also want them to learn about animals." Laks says she wants people to fall more deeply in love with animals of different kinds. "This world is all about being kind and being more loving and giving more than we receive and knowing that we're all the same, we're all connected and we all have value no matter what we look like."
Part of The Gentle Barn's mission is to teach kids to dream. "We always end every session at the wishing well, where the kids can make a wish. And even if it's a wish to have a wish, it's so important that the kids keep moving forward and keep designing their lives," says Laks. "If the kids know that they are empowered and they can create their own life, then they can feel a little bit more hopeful."
To meet the animals and read their stories, visit The Gentle Barn's "Virtual Barn."
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Produced by Deborah Grau. Edited by Nimmers Stern and Matt Weglian. Director of photography: Derek Bauer. Audio: Adam Young. Associate producer: Anne Koester. Production associate: Patrick Horne. Sound mixed by J.J. Brown. Production supervisor: Michael Manas. Executive producers: Russ Torres and Charity Elder for Yahoo! Studios.
Video Courtesy of Visual Sherpa and The Gentle Barn