This month, the residents at My Friend’s House went on a field trip to The Gentle Barn, a livestock sanctuary in Christiana, Tennessee. You would have thought we were taking them to an all-day latrine cleaning session. I never heard so much complaining that morning. Initially, it was about having to eat a vegetarian lunch at the farm. They wanted meat-filled sandwiches, not banana and peanut butter. Then it was, “a farm is boring, there’s nothing to do, why would anyone want to visit a gentle farm.” We often see this resistance in our youth when they are about to encounter something new or unknown.
Shortly after arriving, they were sitting in a gorgeous setting with rolling pastures and big red barns, eating lunch while around them cattle grazed, roosters crowed, and pigs could be heard snorting and snuffling around.
The caregivers from The Gentle Barn began their tour telling the boys the story of every single animal that was rescued and would now live out their lives on this farm without being milked continuously or slaughtered or having their babies taken from them. All of the livestock go through a healing process that helps them recover physically and mentally using lots of human contact and kindness, not unlike what happens at MFH. Eventually, the livestock welcome guests, allowing humans to stroke them, feed them and give them tender hugs.
With each animal, the boys heard amazing stories of survival. One little goat named Lolli, lost her back legs to frostbite and now runs around the farm strapped to a personalized wheelchair that supports her back legs. She almost lost her life but is now one of the happiest residents frolicking around the farm.
The tour started with the opportunity to feed the cows some cookies, which involved lots of slobber and crunching that the boys found engaging by these giant, yet gentle creatures.
Next, the boys got to smash pumpkins for the pigs. Every boy in the universe liking smashing things, but they did not know how much pigs liked to eat pumpkins. Time was spent petting pigs and feeding them pieces of pumpkin.
The boys moved on to goats and chickens. One of our youth was particularly outspoken about not enjoying this field trip and agitated that he was being “forced” to participate. But, he started warming up to the animals and we could see his enthusiasm grow. Then he met Rick Springfield -- the rooster. Rick is proud, with a bright red mane, and fiercely protects his flock. But, on this day Rick was content to just sit with our resident, occasionally eating grain out of his hand. It did not take long for them to form a bond. That thirty minutes with Rick was the longest we have seen this youth sit still since his arrival at My Friend’s House. At the end of the day, our reluctant resident, who is normally loud with very negative speech, quietly told one of the animal caregivers he would like to work on an animal farm one day.
With every experience or opportunity given to the youth at My Friend’s House, we never know the effect it will have on a boy. I have heard words from volunteers taken to heart and repeated by a resident. And, The Gentle Barn still has a resonating effect on this young man, who told me he realized that those animals’ stories were not that different from what people experience. When I told this youth we were going back to The Gentle Barn and might start a monthly program with them, his face lit up. We had a long conversation about animals and career opportunities in working with animals. I then told him I would see if we could all visit the Nashville Zoo during winter break. My Friend’s House is here to help boys heal and learn new skills, but we also try in various ways to plant seeds for a different future than they had expected. Most of our residents have had very limited life experiences. You just never know how encouraging words or experiences will affect a young boy at My Friend’s House.