by Diana Meeks
Editor’s Note: There are over 100 organizations in Whatcom County working to provide supportive services to those experiencing chronic poverty and its associated effects: addiction, homelessness, incarceration, mental illness, and unemployment. Whatcom Watch believes these organizations often labor unnoticed by citizens — this column is designed to add daylight to their endeavors. We have contacted the organization appearing in this column and asked them to explain their mission. Because, in challenging times, being inspired and perhaps empowered by the acts of others is more important than ever.
Since 1999, Animals as Natural Therapy (ANT) has worked with thousands of kids, teens, veterans, families, and elders. We provide mental and behavioral health programs that utilize equine and animal-assisted therapy to help participants learn how to identify their feelings and needs, set goals, and heal trauma. Our equine sessions focus on activities that require participants to utilize specific skills such as assertiveness, verbal and nonverbal communication, problem solving, creative thinking, leadership, maintaining a positive attitude, relationship building, confidence, and teamwork. And while Equine-Assisted Psychotherapy may sound eccentric, it is now an established field that has been shown to be effective in treating substance abuse, attention deficit disorder (ADD), eating disorders, depression, anxiety, and more.
First Time Riding
I walked out to the arena with a young woman in recovery, and, on her left, her horse Starlight walked calmly beside her. She had spent the last several weeks learning how to halter, lead, and groom Star and today she was going to ride for the first time. Sarah* was incredibly nervous mounting — Starlight noticed and tried to move away. I asked her what she was feeling, and, after a quick scan of her body, she said she was a 6 out of 10 for fear. We practiced deep breathing and exercises to calm her nervous system. After a few minutes, she said her anxiety had lessened a bit. Soon Sarah and Starlight stood totally still — both ready. She swung her leg across and settled with ease. I clipped the rope into Starlight’s halter to help lead and provide security for this new experience. We walked off and headed for the opposite side of the arena.
After a few feet, I looked back to see how Sarah was doing. I wished I had had a camera because, at that moment, I saw what might have been one of the purest expressions of joy. She positively beamed, then added “I haven’t been this happy in a long, long time.”
Typical Day on the Farm
The entire session she smiled with an ease that mirrored Starlight’s movement. It was a big bonding moment for her and her horse. This is huge for a young woman who needed to feel a safe and loving connection. It was also a giant shot of confidence and a great chance for her to practice both identifying her feelings and practicing healthy responses. It was another typical day on the farm.
In 2020, we saw an increase in the need for services that we’ve never seen before. We have had to be creative and flexible. Thankfully, “Blessed are the flexible for they shall survive” has been a mantra at ANT for many years. Early in the pandemic, we stopped group therapy and shifted to providing individual therapy sessions.
While not a long-term sustainable business solution, it provided vital hope for many who needed the support. We started having families, stuck in isolation, come to the farm for a safe place outside of their homes. One family at a time, our animals helped them decompress, literally lowering the anxiety on people’s faces. One mother, being safely away from the home, was able to confidentially share the domestic violence she was experiencing and get help.
We also transitioned our Mobile ANT Program to start visiting eldercare facilities outdoors. This unique intergenerational program brings our therapy animals, youth participants, and volunteers to engage with seniors. It offers youth a chance to connect with elders and aging in a positive way, and helps elders feel seen and appreciated. We’ve loved getting to continue this program, and feedback from outdoor visits have been overwhelmingly positive.
Limited Group Services
Later, with guidance from the Whatcom County Health Department, we worked to safely start providing limited group services again. We normally have multiple groups running each week: after school, young women in recovery, and veterans to name a few. And, while our program income has been reduced by over 50 percent due to the inability to offer larger group sessions, we are dedicated to continuing!
We even started a new young men’s group which created space for those who identify as men to process, learn, and grow. Normally, we also work with local schools to offer leadership and bully awareness workshops. Beginning in the fall of 2020, we were lucky to partner with the Whatcom Coalition for Environment Education to offer animal-assisted social and emotional learning experiences for young people furthest removed from educational justice.
It has been so incredible to see how our staff have stepped forward in courage. Every day we are masking up and going in, and every day we are pivoting to meet the unique needs of those we serve. Financially, we are figuring out a way to make it all work — by being flexible, creative, and grateful for all of the support we get from our community!
For winter quarter of 2021, we’ll welcome a new cohort of small groups — full of an incredibly diverse mix of participants. And, while things around us continue to change, sometimes at lightning speed, we have no doubt that the healing sessions, like the one Sarah experienced, will continue day after day here at the farm.
To learn more about Animals as Natural Therapy, visit our webpage: www.animalsasnaturaltherapy.org. We are currently planning our 2021 gala and auction, A Legacy of Hope. We will connect attendees with stories of healing from the barnyard, our four-legged therapists, gratitude for the people and animals who have given us so much, and hope for our collective future.
The gala will be live-streamed on Saturday, April 17, from 7-8 p.m. We are producing an incredible event that you won’t want to miss. Visit our webpage to register and/or connect with us.
Diana Meeks is the outreach manager at Animals as Natural Therapy. She’s been involved with ANT for over 10 years and has held almost every type of volunteer position ANT has. She has a background in communications and marketing and has experience working for a diverse range of organizations. A Pacific Northwest native, she’s an avid rider, outdoorswoman, and animal lover. Email Diana at email@example.com.