May 8—Boomerang, an 11-year-old alpaca, stood calmly while seniors gushed excitedly as they gently pressed their hands into his soft, plush coat.
"Once you feel him, you want to get in there a little bit deeper," said Shirley Paison, a resident of the Browning Masonic Community in Waterville.
Julie and Bill Verhelst of Sunny Meade Alpacas, a private farm in Providence Township, brought the animal, called Boomer for short, to the facility Friday to bring some cheer to residents. The couple has been volunteering to take alpacas to visit libraries, nursing facilities, and other places for a number of years. No particular training is necessary for the alpaca, just a calm and friendly demeanor, Mrs. Verhelst said.
"We started out going to a lot of farmers' markets to sell our wares, and Boomer or whoever came always [drew] a crowd," Mrs. Verhelst said. "People want to hug them and pet them and all of that. Right from the start of taking them out into the community, we saw that people had a connection."
Marissa Dick, life enrichment coordinator for the Browning community, said the visits are therapeutic for residents.
"They just light up and are so much happier," she said. "It's really something for them to look forward."
Such interactions have become even more beneficial as the ongoing coronavirus pandemic has restricted visitations. Ms. Paison said when she saw the alpaca visit on the activity schedule, she looked up what the animals look like in anticipation.
"It's wonderful," she said. "He was just so friendly. I wasn't afraid to go right up to him."
Jackie Campbell said she knew their fleece has value, but has never met an alpaca, let alone petted one.
"It just adds something interesting to do," she said. "He's very soft and very nice. Very deep fur."
The Verhelsts can share a number of stories from their visits. One that sticks with them both was an in-room visit with a bed-bound nursing home resident.
"She sat up in bed and started giving him hugs and everything," Mr. Verhelst said. "Julie took a bunch of nice photos and we called the next day to see if we could give them to her family and they said she died that night."
Last spring during the pandemic shutdown, the couple brought Boomer to Browning and walked him around outdoors to peer in residents' windows. Mrs. Verhelst said the seniors' joy seeing the fuzzy face through their window was immediately apparent.
"You could see them down the halls, running to go to the next room and follow us," she said.
The after-effects of an alpaca visit last several hours after the Verhelsts load Boomer into their trailer and drive home.
"It really does change their demeanor for the rest of the day," Ms. Dick said.