Thanks to the efforts of a committed special education teacher, Collaborative students have been able to participate in a work and learning program at the Full of Grace Horse Farm in Amherst, Massachusetts. The story that follows was sent to us by Patricia Taylor, the teacher that first found this unique farm and saw the potential that it held for her students.
When you drive along the side streets that connect Amherst and Hadley, there are so many beautiful vistas: the tranquil farmland and animals, the mountains looming in the distance, even the UMass towers add to the unique scenery that makes up this area. A couple of years ago, I noticed the sign for the “Full of Grace Horse Farm”, I knew it would be a special place just by the name, and I was right. My name is Patricia Taylor and I am a special education teacher for the Collaborative for Educational Services. I run the alternative high school in Sunderland. One of our goals is to get our students out in the community. We try to ensure that each student is set up in an internship where they can gain valuable work experience. We found that, and so much more, in Full of Grace Horse Farm and the wonderful woman who owns and runs it, Joanne Huff. Full of Grace Horse Farm hosts “Healing with Horses”, programs for people in the need of healing for one reason or another. The program is not centered around riding the horses, instead a licensed therapist will work with the clients and the horses in a collaborative effort to provide healing, acceptance, confidence and calm. I contacted Joanne in September in the hopes of getting three of my high school students involved in some kind of internship where they could work on the farm with Joanne and her beloved horses. She agreed, and in fact is now also allowing two other CES programs to participate. My students are not getting the traditional therapy that the usual clients receive, they are working and working hard, but the benefits are just as amazing.
When I sign my students up for internships, my hope is that they will learn the valuable skills that are necessary to both get and keep a job. We talk about these skills at school, and the special education staff strives to model the skills necessary to be successful out in the community and long after graduation. I go to the farm and work with the kids and Joanne each week. We model the importance of being on time, dressing appropriately for the job at hand, being respectful and attentive to the supervisor, and numerous others attributes of a good worker. One of my students wasn’t sure he was really interested is shoveling out stalls and the hard work involved. After the first day, he was hooked. The young men have been taught how to care for an animal and meet its basic needs of adequate shelter, a clean stall, food and water. They heard some of the stories of the horses histories, where they came from, what kinds of situations they were rescued from, etc. They quickly knew the horses by name and story. They were asked to take turns demolishing a cement wall with a sledge hammer, one young man who had never done any kind of physical labor, was amazed at how good it felt to do something so physical. They each eagerly awaited their next turn. Talking about positive job skills is important, but it isn’t until the students are actually working, that some of these lessons start to resonate with them. They are learning to the mind set of someone who is ready and willing to be an asset to any team. They are taking pride in a job well done.
All of this is great, but the biggest gift of our “work” with Joanne has been the interaction between the boys and the horses. One of my students is an aspiring photographer. He asked if he could bring a camera one day and take pictures. He captured the horses, the dog, the cat, and his peers interacting with the animals, in some pretty magical moments. He thinks about his experiences long after we leave the farm each week, and looks forward to coming back. He is putting his pictures into a slide show and cannot wait to make Joanne a copy for her website. One day when we were out shoveling manure in the field, this young man asked if I thought he could bring an autistic member of his family to the farm to meet Joanne and the horses some day. He thoughtfully reflected on all the benefits he thought could be gained by such a visit.
The boys have been learning how to walk and brush the horses. They have been taught the respect in which you must approach an animal in order to gain its trust. These are the kind of life lessons that resonate with kids. One day Joanne introduced us to a horse named Sarge. She explained that Sarge’s owners could no longer keep him and he had been dropped off. She explained that Sarge was probably feeling very lonely, scared and confused; everything and everyone who was familiar to him was gone. Without hesitation, my students approached Sarge calmly and with great compassion. They stroked his fur and told him that “it would be ok”. It was a moment between children and animals that I will never forget. It is a great opportunity to be able to bring kids out into the community, where they can learn skills that will help them get and keep jobs, but it is an amazing gift when simultaneously they are learning to look deeper into themselves through the immeasurable benefit of working with animals. I appreciate that opportunity that Joanne and all her equine friends are providing for my students very much.